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Ian Liddell-Grainger: Grass is welcome on Somerset Levels but milk prices are stamping on optimism

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: May 10, 2014

  • Farmers are happy with good grass on the Somerset Levels

  • Farmers are happy with the return of good gras to the Somerset Levels, though dairy farmers are less than happy with changes to milk prices, says MP Ian Liddell-Grainger

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Good grass is emerging across the Somerset Levels, as MP Ian Liddell-Grainger tells farming Minister George Eustice. But all may not be well in the dairy sector…..

Dear George

You will be pleased to know that some form of normality is being restored to the Levels at long last. Not necessarily on the habitation front – a lot of the houses are still being worked on and will continue to be so for some months.

But at least the land, apart from the very worst-affected areas, is looking in good enough fettle and some silage is being taken off, even though yields will almost certainly be down for most people.

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Meanwhile, I am keeping particularly close tabs on the Environment Agency and its dredging operations because at the least sign of backsliding, prevaricating or resorting to flimsy excuses about water quality upsetting the fish, I shall be down on them like a ton of silt, I can tell you.

I still don't think the seriousness of the situation down there has been grasped by the upper echelons of the organisation where the responsibility for the original halt to dredging lies.

This would account for why, when the floods were at their worst and everyone was battling round the clock to save Bridgwater from going under, I tried to contact one very senior official only to be told he had swanned off on holiday.

I shall save him the embarrassment of having his name revealed here, though may, of course, be obliged to disclose it unless the EA buckles down and cracks on at full speed with correcting its errors and omissions.

Worryingly, George, I am picking up some repeated signals on the radar about the activities of Arla, which is allegedly starting to make life difficult for some of the small dairy producers it supplies. Prices are being jacked up for some while others are being told supply contracts are being terminated.

All rather unsettling, particularly for Somerset, Dorset and Devon, where there are so many cheesemakers and others using milk, and among whom the feeling is that Arla itself wants to get the benefit of adding value to the milk rather than let others do it.

Trouble is that a lot of farmers here regard Arla as a sort of big friendly giant just because it was set up by Danish and Swedish farmers, but in business terms it's as ruthless as the next multi-national.

The real pity is, of course, that despite being the best milk producers in Europe, we have never, ever been able to put together an outfit on Arla's scale that can operate across national boundaries.

The last chance we had was when there was a move to organise a farmer buyout of Dairy Crest, which would have provided an ideal opportunity to acquire and grow an off-the-shelf business. Sadly there was no enthusiasm for it, least of all from the NFU.

All, I suppose down to the British farmer's inherent dislike of any form of co-operative production. In other countries they are all for it, working together, pooling machinery and so on. Here that sort of thing is regarded as a step away from communism, farming collectives and the lusty singing of The Red Flag.

Personally, I see little hope of any improvement. Getting two farmers to agree on the price of a second-hand muck spreader is enough of a challenge: reaching any kind of accord on working together in harness just a step too far in most cases.

Yours ever

Ian

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