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Jan 21 2005


Hundreds more small Westcountry dairy farms will go out of business over the next few years as reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy begin to bite, a key adviser to Tony Blair said yesterday.

Chris Haskins, the Labour peer who has advised the Prime Minister extensively on rural issues, told the WMN that many small farms would "cease to be active" in the next two or three years as production subsidies are phased out.

Lord Haskins, the former chairman of food giant Northern Foods, said he expected to see massive consolidation in the dairy industry, with average herd sizes rising to 250, more than twice the size of the typical Westcountry dairy farm.

"For the last 150 years we have seen fewer and larger farms and that trend will accelerate," he said. "In five years time anyone milking less than 250 cows - it is very questionable whether they will still be doing it."

Hundreds of dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years as a result of rock bottom milk prices, with many farmers calling for government action to curb the supermarkets' massive buying power. Lord Haskins said the question of supermarket power over suppliers was "an interesting issue" and he acknowledged that there were some "bad practices". But he suggested it was unlikely that the multiple retailers would face any significant government restrictions.

"The Government is not going to do anything about the supermarkets for two reasons," he said. "Firstly, the Treasury know they have done a great deal to keep inflation down. Secondly, from a consumer point of view, people like shopping in supermarkets. If their consumers were being exploited they would jump on it, but there isn't."

His comments echo those of Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael, who angered farmers last week when he predicted that thousands more dairy farmers would have to go out of business before the sector moved into profit.

Lord Haskins, who comes from an Irish farming family, said he had "some sympathy" with the view that farming was "a way of life" to be preserved.

He said: "In Ireland the one thing we wanted to do was get out of farming because the jobs were so miserable. Nowadays there is a shortage of people wanting to farm. It is a myth to suggest people are being prevented from farming, people don't want to farm because it is tough and unsociable."

Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George described Lord Haskins as "the real Secretary of State" for farming and said his comments reflected the reality of government policy. He said large dairy farmers were also going out of business because the low level of milk prices made it impossible for them to invest.

"It is quite clear that the Government is happy to stand aside and watch farmers leave the land, rather than intervene," he said. "The fact is that farmers are struggling and that farm gate prices are now entirely dictated by the supermarkets. We must have a counter-balance in the supply chain to protect small farmers, otherwise we will see our countryside turned into massive ranches.

"In Lord Haskins' vision the traditional farming landscape will go out the window."