Crying over spilt milk: exasperated dairy farmers pour away their stock

Angered by falling prices, small producers are taking action against the EU – and the big unions

John Lichfield
Saturday 29 August 2009 00:00 BST

Christophe Voivenel is a dairy farmer, and the son of dairy farmers, in one of the finest dairy regions in the world. At some point in the next few days, he will commit an act of sacrilege. He will rise, as usual, at 6am to milk his 60 cows and then throw away the warm, white liquid which is his family's life's blood. "You have to understand how hard that will be," he said. "It is like an artist destroying his own painting or a craftsman smashing one of his own creations."

Mr Voivenel, 43, a farmer near Vire in lower Normandy, is about to go on strike. Tens of thousands of dairy farmers in 14 European countries, including some in Britain, are preparing to join the first ever pan-European "milk strike": an attempt to push up the farm-gate price of milk, which has almost halved in the last 18 months.

Supporters of the movement, belonging to the "European Milk Board", also want to preserve the limits on milk production, or dairy quotas, introduced 26 years ago to melt the EU butter mountains. Farmers detested the quotas at the time. Brussels now wants to scrap them. Many farmers fear that a resulting free-for-all could favour the financially strong over the weak and push them out of business.

Mr Voivenel does not fit the outdated stereotype of the angry French farmer. He wears a t-shirt and shorts and has long, curly hair. He speaks, eloquently, of the need to protect the beautiful, rolling, wooded dairy country of southern Calvados, where his Holstein and brown-white-black "tricolour" Normandy cattle produce the rich milk which makes Camembert. But he also speaks of the need for farmers to persuade consumers that traditional patterns of farming are also in their long-term interest.

Farmers' revolts in Europe are two a penny. This one is different. First, it is rare for farm protests to cross European borders. Second, in France at least, the "white revolution" is a rebellion not just against Brussels and Paris and the dairy processing industry but a direct challenge to the largest farming union, the FNSEA, which has run French agricultural policy hand in hand with the government for almost half a century.

Unlike typical French farm protests – often choreographed by the FNSEA – organisers of the milk strike promise no violence. They promise to give away part of their milk to charities. "This is not an anti-consumer protest," Mr Voivenel said. "Stable supplies of dairy produce at reasonable prices are good for them, as well as us."

Isn't the collapse of farm-gate milk prices – from €378 a thousand litres early last year to €210 now – in the interest of consumers? Hardly, the rebels say. In that time the average price of a one litre "brick" of milk in French shops has scarcely fallen, from €0.70 to €0.69.

Hence the fury of many French farmers, who accuse the dairy processing industry of squeezing smaller farmers out of business to create large "ranches". Similar anger for similar reasons has been bubbling for months in other EU countries.

The strike – to be triggered at a "secret date" around 7 September – has support in Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Luxembourg and two non-EU countries, Switzerland and Croatia. The hope is that, within two weeks, or even one week, a shortage of milk will force governments and dairy processing companies to re-negotiate.

In France, the strike is supported by 25,000 out of 90,000 dairy farmers, according to a new body– the Association des producteurs de lait indépendents (APLI) – set up to challenge the hegemony of the dominant farm union. The strike is backed by an independent farmers' union, Coordination Rurale, and somewhat reluctantly by the left of centre small farmers' union, Confédération Paysanne.

Mr Voivenel says that the planned strike has produced "great tensions" between local farmers. "I am expecting threats," he said. "But we are determined to keep our own movement non-violent."

In June, the French dairy processing industry and the dominant farm union, the FNSEA, reached agreement on a farm-gate price for milk of roughly €280 for a thousand litres. The word of the FNSEA, a union closely associated with the centre-right of French politics since the 1960s, used to be law in the French countryside. No more. The rebels say that the promised €280 a thousand litres is less than their cost of production. They want a guaranteed €400 a thousand litres, in return for reduced EU subsidy payments.

The FNSEA is vociferously opposed to the strike, accusing its leaders like Mr Voivenel, of promoting a pointless confrontation.

Laurent Kerlir, FNSEA president for Brittany said: "The processors have such big stocks of butter and milk powder that it will have no effect." He does not believe the strike will go ahead. "They have been threatening a strike for six months and postponing a strike for six months," he said.

Mr Voivenel admits that it will be a "terrible wrench, a psychological trauma" for dairy farmers to throw away their milk. "Perhaps, when it comes to it, some of them will be unable to go along. We understand that. There will be no pressure, no threats," he said.

A low milk price and the abolition of quotas would, he says, accelerate the amalgamation of farms and the transformation of the dairy lands of Calvados – perhaps the finest in the world – into cereals fields. There were 30 dairy farmers in Mr Voivenel's commune 20 years ago. Now there are ten.

One morning, early next month – and then twice a day after that – Mr Voivenel says he is ready to milk his cows and then dump his milk. There is no question of just letting the milk run into waterways, he said. "We are looking at ways to do this responsibly".

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in