WIGHT LIVING THE milk of commercial kindness has not been flowing from the supermarkets to dairy farmers — there can be little doubt about that.
We have heard the varying statistics as the national debate has raged over a situation that is affecting much of the UK dairy industry.
And there seems to be broad acceptance that many farmers are being paid less for every litre of milk than it costs them to produce it.
The majority of farmers are being paid between 26 and 27 pence a litre for milk that has cost them 31p a litre to produce.
On the Island the situation is even more bleak.
Island dairy farmers say they face an extra disadvantage, amounting to an extra 1.5p discrepancy for every litre of milk they produce. That is caused by the cost of importing feed to the Island and shipping the milk to the mainland.
Islanders of a certain age will remember milk churns at the end of farm lanes awaiting early-morning collection. In those days there were more than 300 dairy farms spread across the Island.
Today there are just 15. And there are predictions there could be as few as seven in a year if things carry on as they are.
But, there is a determination on the Island to boost the flagging industry and a campaign is being officially launched at this weekend’s Garlic Festival. Farmers hope it will win the hearts, minds and wallets of all those who can help.
The message is that, as a community, we can make a difference and it’s not just a Buy Isle of Wight campaign. It runs deeper than that.
The Island dairy farmers organisation behind it grew out of the Milk Summit in Westminster, run by the National Farmers Union and Farmers for Action.
Islanders Lou Hart, Jill Cawood, Justin Birch, Richard Fisk and Kay Reed, whose enterprises rely on a healthy milk industry, went to meet MP Andrew Turner in the Houses of Parliament.
He is firmly on board, having heard about the threats to our dairy industry.
Island cows produce 20 million litres of milk a year, when people living here consume 35 million. Enough processing capacity exists, so if all the milk produced on the Island was bottled and sold here, there would be immediate benefits.
In fact, less than 20 per cent of the milk produced on the Island is processed and sold here, the other 80 per cent travels across The Solent and is processed and sold there.
After the first meeting of all the Island’s dairy farmers, a couple of days ago, a committee was established to drive the local campaign.
"We need to start looking at our opportunities living on the Island. No one wants IW milk to be shipped off the Island while milk is being brought over from the mainland," said one of the organisation’s driving forces, Lou Hart.
She said that, so far, even in its embryonic stages, the campaign was having an effect.
Tesco has seen IW milk sales increase. So far, the retailer, so often branded the bad big boy of UK shopping, remains the only one of the majors to sell local dairy.
"Hopefully, people are realising that in order to have rolling green pastures we need cows to graze them," said Lou.
"Due to our tourism industry and large designations of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we need to encourage the public to make the link that to safeguard our beautiful Island people need to buy IW milk.
"If we can generate the support of people who wish to protect our beautiful green landscape in the same way that people protect it when there’s a planning application submitted, the campaign will be rolling!
"Without cows the green fields will quickly change into arable crops, with less need for hedgerows due to larger scale machinery being used to manage the landscape," she points out.
The farmers’ concerns for the countryside chimed with our MPs.
Mr Turner said this week: "It is all too easy to take milk for granted, but we should consider how it is produced.
"This is a national issue, but it is also a local one and this new local campaign is about more than agricultural diversity, it affects other areas important to our economy.
"For instance, most tourists value our beautiful natural environment and dairy farming shapes our rural landscape."
Another issue the farming community highlights is the fact that the UK boasts much higher standards of welfare than Europe. They say that if the public wants to continue to pay so little for its milk it is pushing them into more intensive systems.
"Unfortunately it is the supermarkets who have allowed society to think this situation is acceptable," said chairman Lou.
"Milk is at a seven-year price low — and is now much cheaper than bottled water."
l The Garlic Festival tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday will see the launch of the campaign with help from Coppid Hall Dairies and Three Gates Farm to give out free milk and explain the importance of buying locally.
Dairy farmers will be on hand all weekend to answer questions and promote milk to the public.
How the Island’s dairy farmers are fighting for survival
Dairy farmer Justin Birch with his wife, Georgette, and their children, Lottie, six and Austin three.
Justin Birch, is 41, married to Georgette, with two children, six-year-old Lottie and Austin, who is three.
Justin is proud to be a dairy farmer. He wasn’t born into a farming family but started his first relief milking job when still at school, aged 14.
He came to the Island and loves the Calbourne family share-farm, with a passion. As with most dairy farmers, his day starts at 3am and rarely finishes before 7pm.
Despite the negatives, he sees big advantages to living on the Island, not least that there is "in-house" capacity to process all the milk produced here.
"All the Island’s dairy farmers are now working together to champion IW Milk, through promotions and a campaign to educate Island residents and visitors about the importance of dairy farming to the Island.
"We aim, with the weight of public support, to persuade the IW supermarkets and retailers to sell milk and dairy products that have been produced and processed on the Island, which reduces food miles, and strengthens the dairy farming economy."
Dairy farmers Alan, left, and Harold George with some of their cows.
Sixty-nine-year-old Harold George runs Coppid Hall Farm, at Havenstreet, together with his wife, Andrea, and son, Alan.
They also employ seven people, producing hundreds of thousands of litres of milk a year from their herd of 300 on as many acres.
In 2007, he was paid 27.5p a litre for the milk he did not process on the farm and sold through the family’s Wight Milk business.
This year he was being paid 1p a litre less for his milk but he expects his major expenses of buying fertiliser and feed will have all but doubled come winter.
Harold would have retired if he could have afforded to do so. He is hoping he can pass on the farm in good health to his son.
But they have delayed replacing machinery and cut all the costs they can.
They hope they can increase the milk they sell locally and get a fair price for their surplus.
"Alan came out of agricultural college to take on the farm and we now bring on our own stock but I have to admit we are struggling financially and the farm is just not suited to arable," said Harold.
Queenbower Dairy is renowned for its milk from Guernsey cows and the faithful doorstep delivery in all weathers since the early 1930s.
Michael Reed is the fourth generation farming there. The current milk round was started by his father delivering milk by bicycle on his way to school, balancing a churn on the handlebars. He then milked the cows again when he returned home.
Deliveries were later done by horse and then milk float and now a fleet of vans.
"It is possible, at times, to milk the cow, process the milk and have it on the doorstep within three hours," said Michael.
"We pride ourself in delivering in all weather conditions. During the snow of last winter a tractor was used to deliver to the country areas — and not a not a single customer was left without milk."