Sunday, 29 July 2012

Spilt Milk

Today’s killer stat: the world demand for milk is increasing by about 2.5% per year which is equal to the entire annual milk output of Britain or approaching 7,000 Olympic swimming pools. Yet despite the fact that we have the perfect geography for dairy production and great know-how in the business, our milk industry is in serious trouble. 

This week Countryfile is in the white stuff. We’re filming an investigation to try and discover why our dairy farmers say they are are paid such rotten prices. Sainsbury’s were good enough to let us in and, after considerable health and safety discussions, I actually got to push one of those upright cage trolleys full of milk out of the cold store and onto the shelves. 

In interview, their own brand director Judith Batchelar, said they pay farmers a few pence more than the cost of production: just shy of 31p per litre with further bonus payments if they hit various welfare or environmental goals. Their standard price per litre of milk on the shelf was 52p, less than much of their bottled water. Many shoppers volunteered that they would willingly pay more if they knew it was being passed on to the farmers but Judith had her doubts. In supermarket jargon milk is a KVI – known value item – on which customers will compare prices. Even if they don’t do it in the aisle, on checkout they might suffer `till-shock’ - quaking at the size of the bill and combing through it to scrutinise costs. Judith Batchelar was certain: unilateral higher milk prices would drive some customers away. I was impressed by her candour and I don’t want to be too hard on Sainsbury’s, not least because they gave us access and didn’t dodge the questions but also many farmers say they are more generous than most other big retailers. 

Most processors also closed the door on us but a smaller one was did give us sight of the bottling plant and explained how he had been forced to drop his price to farmers as he was getting less from his buyers. Whilst there, we also met Kevin Bellamy, a banker who specialises in dairy investment, who was an encyclopaedia of world trends. He revealed that Chinese mothers are increasingly going out to work and feeding their babies and toddlers powdered milk in the belief this high protein ‘Western’ diet will make their children tall and smart. True or not, it sounds like an opportunity for farmers but as yet we can’t reach that market. 
On leaving I met three dairymen discussing whether to escalate their protest by pouring all their production down the drain for one day. You know the industry is dysfunctional when farmers are cheering not crying, over spilt milk. 

IMAGE: The crew hard at work filming in a milk processing plant.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Warming Seas

Thursday 20 July
I couldn’t explain it at first. Why was it that, with every question I
asked, James the mussel man seemed to get a little shorter? Starting
off eye to eye yet within ten minutes he was eye to Adam’s apple.
This week’s shoot is all about the gradually warming seas around
Britain affecting what lives there, what our fishermen can expect to
haul up and what we might see for our tea. Average water temperature
around the UK has gone up one degree Celsius in the last 50 years.
Not enough to swap your wetsuit for something more itsy-bitsy but
sufficient for southern visitors to take up residence and we’ve been
looking at what’s new around the coast of north Wales.
First from the deep was supposed to be spider crabs but the wretched
‘summer’ weather scuppered us again and it was too rough to venture
out and lift the pots. Plan b was a fish wholesaler but even he
couldn’t promise. So as we rounded the corner to his chilled sheds I
was quite agitated: excited as a childhood memory flickered of seeing
spider crabs dwarfing a space hopper in the Guinness book of records
yet nervous as he might have none and it’s difficult to make telly
without seeing what you are talking about. He had some. Still alive
but docile, he said they move like ‘grease lightning’ underwater and
the lobster boys are bringing in more and more. The trouble is that
the British shopper is too cautious to dig into what resembles the
‘face-hugger’ from Alien plus a hard shell and minus a tail. The
Spanish used to buy them but are a little strapped just now.
But the warmer water seems to be washing out the cod. Already hammered
by our own overfishing, their recovery has been hampered by the
favourite food of the cod larvae being a plankton which thrives in
chillier seas. Less food for littl’uns means fewer healthy adults.
Only when the tide was right could we make the last stop of the day.
The home of one third of the farmed mussels sold in the UK: the
mudflats of the Menai Strait. A struggle to reach and only achieved
with waders and frequent comedy floundering. Heat loving invasive
species, already apparent at Holyhead, threaten to smother the mussel
beds in brown goo. A more acidic ocean resulting from more CO2 in the
air could impede shell growth. But the more immediate peril was the
fate of the incredible shrinking man who was delivering this
He was, of course, sinking slowly in the mud, maybe I have bigger
feet. But it wasn’t strictly mud he told us but what has already
passed through the mussels: “pseudo – faeces” in fact.
Nice... Tomorrow we may see dolphins.