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Dairy Farmers

Volume 502: debated on Thursday 10 December 2009

10. What estimate he has made of the change in the number of dairy farmers between (a) 2008 and 2009 and (b) 2009 and 2010. (305584)

Although we do not have official figures on the number of dairy farmers, it is believed that the number of dairy farms in England fell by about 5 per cent. between 2008 and 2009. The source of that figure is the cattle tracing system. The trend in UK dairy production is towards fewer, larger herds.

The Minister will know that there has been a steep decline over the past 10 years. On Saturday, I was at the Gisburn auction marts to present some certificates to young farmers, who were enthusiastically showing their livestock. Clearly, however, enthusiasm will not be enough to secure the future viability of dairy farming in this country, so what sustainable future can he offer young entrants into dairy farming in the UK?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that, notwithstanding the concern and anxiety of young farmers coming into the industry, the British dairy sector is fundamentally sound and is expected to do very well over the medium to long term, due to efficiency improvements, innovation and investment in new products. We are much better placed than most of our European competitors, and we will do all we can in Europe and the UK to ensure that we support the British dairy industry.

I wonder whether I could confirm what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said about dairy farming. My constituency is similar to his—not quite as beautiful, but almost—and for the past two years I have been the president of the Keighley and district agricultural show. I have been made painfully aware of the feelings of many farmers, and I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of how deep those feelings go. Not just they but their children are being forced out of the industry, because there is not a wage to be earned.

Obviously, I commend my hon. Friend for the position that she holds locally. Notwithstanding the reduction in the number of dairy farmers, the volume produced is not far short of where we were 10 years ago—13 billion litres rather than 14 billion—and we are well within quota. I reinforce the point that the UK dairy sector is much better placed than those elsewhere, and the recent trends in prices across the world demonstrate a keen rise in recent months. We want that to continue, because the dairy industry is very important to UK agriculture, making up 18 per cent. of the whole industry.

A few weeks ago, the awful announcement of Corus closing on Teesside triggered an immediate and proper response and financial intervention from Government. The dairy industry is dying on its feet. The milk price today is lower than the production price, and that cannot be sustained. Will the ombudsman—ombudsperson in the Minister’s language—have anything to do with milk prices when examining the supermarkets’ actions?

Obviously, if an ombudsman is introduced, it will very much be up to him or her to determine which issues to consider most closely. Ultimately, we believe that markets determine prices. I reiterate that the UK dairy industry is in a much better position than most of our EU competitors. A high-level group has been set up by the European Agriculture Council to examine the problems of the dairy sector, which are not exclusively UK problems and are much more serious in other member states. It is examining the situation to see what assistance can be given to dairy across Europe.