Hamill’s Beat - The big supermarkets are milking our farmers

Dairy farmers in England are revolting. They’ve been blockading milk processing plants. They only get 25 pence a litre for milk and they’re not happy about it. That’s well below the cost of production and they say they can’t go on producing it at a loss. Meanwhile, dairy farmers here in the North only get 21 pence a litre and apart from mentions in the media farming slots, there’s barely a word about it.

We’re rightly concerned about the exploitation of child workers in far eastern sweat shops. They sustain the profits of our big retailers. We’re also concerned about workers here at home. To a limited extent they’re protected by the national minimum wage. But we don’t seem to care about farmers having their profits skimmed off.

Like the banks, the food processors and trans-national supermarkets have grown too big and too powerful. They distort the market through the power of their near monopolies. It’s all turning a bit sour for the small farmers.

The big supermarket chains are taking over the world. If you doubt that, look around. They have massive land banks and enjoy the best sites in most of our towns and cities. Here in Derry, for instance we may not get a grand riverside sports stadium on a prime site (at Fort George) but we already have a riverside supermarket. Everyone, including town planners, trembles before the power of the big supermarkets.

Fair enough, they provide modestly paid jobs and relatively low prices for consumers but their profits are sucked out of local economies, unless you’re fortunate enough to be a shareholder. (Or like David Cameron, married to a wealthy heiress of the supermarket’s owner.) Smaller, locally owned, firms can’t compete.

Just like the clothing retailers exploiting low wage economies the supermarket giants and their food processors use their muscle to hold down prices paid to farmers. Thus they keep their margins up and their profits roll in.

It’s a struggle to muster sympathy for farmers. They’ve been their own worst enemies for too long. They’ve cried wolf once too often. Yet they have massive commitment to their small enterprises and they work exceptionally hard. Dairy farmers, in particular have long anti-social hours and never get days off or holidays without someone else, usually a family member, standing in for them. It’s simply not right that they’re being exploited by the all conquering supermarkets.

But protest works and the government in England seem to be getting the message. It’s dawning on them that they need to regulate the market to save the farming industry, despite the fact that the agriculture minister recently, embarrassingly, on a radio interview had to confess that didn’t know the price of a litre of milk.

But our farmers are already worse off than their counterparts in England. So when can we expect intervention here? Next time you’re buying milk, spare a thought for the farmers (and their cows) who are producing it at a loss.