The price of Shetland milk will have to increase to ensure the local industry has a sustainable future, according to one of a dwindling number of dairy producers left in the islands.
Derek Flaws, who keeps 51 dairy cows on his farm at Fleck, Dunrossness, said the price paid to producers had effectively not increased for two decades while costs had mushroomed. He has vowed to carry on milking cows, something he has done for over 30 years.
He was speaking after serious doubts were voiced last week about the health of the Shetland’s milk industry. Brian Anderson of Kergord Farm last week confirmed he had begun selling off the family herd, while another producer at Ringesta is understood to be facing serious financial difficulties.
“We’re still getting the same price as we were 20 years ago,” Mr Flaws told The Shetland Times. “Fertiliser has trebled in that time, diesel for tractors is up six times, feeding is up at least 50 per cent and everything else around you – it just doesn’t add up. I still think there can be an industry, but the only way is going to be a price increase before too long.”
The nearby 676-acre Noss Farm at Scousburgh, including dairy buildings for up to 90 cows, is up for sale. That means that, along with Fleck, only the dairy farm operations at South Setter and Quendale remain on a stable footing at present. Such is the uncertainty hanging over Shetland Farm Dairies that Mr Flaws is “never off the phone” with fellow dairy farmers just now.
“[We] don’t know what to think in some ways. It’s difficult to plan a way ahead when we don’t know how many is going to be left in it,” he said. “We know there’s two going, and there’s one that’s being sold as a dairy farm but you can’t be 100 per cent sure that it goes as that.
“It depends how long he [Noss owner John Mainland] is prepared to hang on and wait for a buyer, but even if we go down to three we will be trying to make it work. You canna give up, you have to give it a go.”
With two litres of Shetland-produced milk already sometimes costing around 50 pence higher than imported milk on supermarket shelves, Mr Flaws said the dairy farmers’ best hope was to rely on the goodwill of people who want to buy local.
“We just have to trust that folk that wants our milk will still buy it for a slightly dearer price,” he said. “Ours is milked one day and inside the shop the next day, whereas what’s coming from south is a few days old. Even though it has a better date, [that] doesn’t mean it’s fresher milk.
“I’m sure a lot of the public doesn’t realise that our milk is fresher than incoming milk. If we end up with no milk and the weather goes wrong, then there is a big problem.”
Asked who is to blame for the current predicament, which comes amid nationwide protests at the prices mainland dairy producers are receiving for their milk, Mr Flaws was in no doubt. “I blame the supermarkets entirely – it’s them that’s warring with each other. In here they’re selling at national prices, obviously, but that’s not realistic.”
Mr Flaws’ farm churns out 960 litres of milk a day, around 15 per cent of the 6,500 litres produced by the dairy co-operative. Around 1,300 litres is poured down the drain in Shetland each morning. “The biggest problem here is us dumping a lot of milk,” he said.
Mr Flaws used to have the luxury of a full-time employee, but is no longer able to afford that. He relies on his 80-year-old father Willie for assistance with the twice-daily task of milking the cows, and has a part-time hand at weekends.
Remembering back to when Jimmy Burgess owned the dairy, he said folk were “crying out” for milk and “we couldn’t produce enough”. The Fleck dairy farm started in 1979, at a time when there were probably 20 producers or more.
“It’s gone on okay for a while because we’ve bought up quota and gotten bigger,” he said. “So you could swallow the price not going up, but now the volume’s going down. It’s come to the stage it [the price] will have to go up to the customer if they want to continue to have Shetland milk.”
Mr Flaws accepts there have been hiccups with the packaging and presentation of Shetland milk, which new dairy manager Gerry Byres is working hard to address. “Last year was a disaster with the new filling machine, there were a lot of problems and we were very disappointed with that.”
He added: “To me, if the dairy industry disappears in Shetland it will never return – that would be the end, nobody would start again.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he was planning to meet the NFU next week to see what can be done to ease the dairy farmers’ problems.
SIC development committee chairman Alastair Cooper said it was “very difficult” to see what sort of solution could be found, but he was “willing to meet the industry at any time to discuss ways of making life a bit easier for them”.
Transition Shetland, the group set up to find ways to approach a future without cheap oil, said the fragility of the dairy industry highlighted the importance of Shetland avoiding overreliance on imported goods and multinational giants like Tesco.
Vice-chairman Pete Bevington said that, while the group has not discussed the subject in any detail as it focuses on rescuing the Tingwall glasshouses, local food production was vital for the islands’ future sustainability.
“It does raise serious concern that the impact of a huge supermarket, which appears to be dedicated to keeping prices as low as possible, is having such a potentially grave impact on a local industry,” Mr Bevington said.
“It’s always dangerous for an economy, especially one as remote and therefore fragile as Shetland, to become too dependent upon a large business whose allegiance is to its own shareholders rather than the communities which it serves.”