Doubts have been voiced about the future of Shetland’s milk industry after one producer with nearly four decades’ experience in the business bowed out. There is also uncertainty over two other dairy farms.
Brian Anderson, joint owner of Kergord Farm, this week reluctantly began selling off the family herd. He said the decision to exit dairy production was “not something we’ve done lightly”, blaming a combination of factors including low prices, undercutting from imported milk and the long hours involved in production.
It comes only weeks after the 676-acre Noss Farm at Scousburgh, which includes dairy buildings for up to 90 cows, was put up for sale. Like Mr Anderson’s business, Noss Farm has quota and shares in Shetland Farm Dairies, the co-operative which sells milk to dozens of shops and businesses in the islands.
With a third dairy producer understood to be facing financial difficulties, there are fears that the number of suppliers to the farm dairy could be halved in the months ahead.
Shetland Farm Dairies manager Gerry Byres said the industry was “going through a transition period”, but he is confident it will emerge as a “leaner, more efficient” organisation.
Mr Anderson spoke of the tough time milk producers, often “one-man bands” and “very hard-working fellows”, faced. They are out of bed at 5am every morning, including on Christmas Day, carrying out “hell of an intensive work”, and with very low unemployment in Shetland he said it was difficult to attract people into dairying.
“Loading the cattle today, it’s vexing to see it going,” he said. “The cows now are as good as they’ve ever been. We’ve had no real price rise in milk for a long time now, and we’re concerned – I don’t see it getting any better.”
Mr Byres said it was “sad to see anyone quitting”, but the problems faced by individual producers were “a private issue for the suppliers”, and he remains optimistic it should not hinder the dairy’s capacity too severely.
At present there are six suppliers, and though in the worst case scenario that could fall to three, Mr Byres said he hoped a buyer could be found to continue Noss as a dairy farm. He also anticipates that the remaining producers will “increase their herd and produce more milk”.
He said it was vital that local people, and multinational companies, recognised the value of maintaining local production: “Anything that’s community-based can’t just be wiped clean – the dairy industry has to stay and it will stay.”
The problems faced by Shetland’s dairy industry come amid strife nationally. UK farmers this week marched on Westminster urging the UK government to set out a fairer pricing structure for milk.
Shetland producers are at a major competitive disadvantage to mainland producers, with Mr Byres estimating costs to be 30 per cent higher. As well as higher fuel prices, longer winters mean cattle need to be fed on silage for up to eight months of the year, which is much more expensive than feeding them on grass.
Supermarkets frequently sell imported milk on special offers, in line with nationwide campaigns. Mr Byres said that such offers generally had to be funded by the supplier, and at the moment that was unaffordable for Shetland Farm Dairies.
A Tesco spokeswoman said the supermarket worked with hundreds of local and national suppliers across the country, and sold around 40 locally sourced products in Shetland. She said: “We will be visiting Shetland this summer to spend time with our local suppliers and look at bringing even more Shetland produce to the stores.”
A Co-operative Food spokesman said: “We always aim to provide our customers with a choice of good quality products at competitive prices. In Shetland, our standard milk range, outside of organic and speciality one per cent milk, is fresh milk produced in Shetland. Our prices, including any special offers, are in line with comparable Co-operative Food stores elsewhere.”
For full version of this story, see tomorrow’s Shetland Times.