EU is milking local dairy sector, insists Brexit-supporting Byers

The manager of Shetland Farm Dairies insists Britain should leave the European Union if Shetland is to avoid losing its dairy amid long-running concerns surrounding milk imports.

Gerry Byers believes free market forces leave Shetland powerless to protect its vulnerable dairy sector against cheap milk brought in from outwith the isles.

He says Shetland should become a crown dependency similar to Jersey or the Isle of Man. Jersey maintains import controls on milk produce coming into the isle.

Gerry Byers believes an exit from the EU would help Shetland control milk imports to help the dairy. Photo: Dave Donaldson
Gerry Byers believes an exit from the EU would help Shetland control milk imports to help the dairy. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Mr Byers said: “I think we should come out of the EU. People don’t realise that there is a lot of milk in the south of England coming in from France and Belgium.

“Also, there is a lot of milk coming from Ireland into the UK. If the UK came out of the EU, that wouldn’t happen – that would stop.

“The UK farmers, as a whole, would then be able to command a better price for their milk.”

Problems with milk imports have long-since been a major difficulty for the dairy. Last year Mr Byers warned around 40 per cent of milk being consumed comes from outwith Shetland. The local company has struggled to cope against big names like Cravendale and Wiseman’s in terms of price.

On a broader level, Mr Byers also believes the fishing industry has been “decimated” by EU membership.

Mr Byers says farmers on the UK mainland can expect to receive up to 14 pence a litre. But he says isles production is hampered by additional overheads meaning production is 35 to 40 per cent more expensive. The problem, he says, has been exacerbated by the downturn in the oil sector, which has led to a 10 per cent loss in sales revenue.

“If it continues there will be no dairy in Shetland. We can’t match what’s happening.

“I’ve no doubt I could sell 90 per cent, if not more, of the milk to Shetland, but when you have multinationals bringing in cheap milk from the UK mainland, we can’t match the price.

“As Shetland is part of the UK and Scotland, and we’re in the EU, it would be illegal to ban imports. At the end of the day, we are an island community, and it is important that island community is kept together and is self-sufficient.”

Mr Byers said 10 full-time members of staff worked at the dairy along with one part-time worker. But he said the indirect involvement through farm production meant 84 people in total depended on the future of the business.

He demanded: “What jobs do Cravendale keep on the island? None. They don’t keep any jobs in the islands.”

Shetland milk came under criticism in recent times for its poor packaging, which led to complaints about leaking milk bottles. The company has since sought to address the problem. But Mr Byers says demand is still not all he would hope it to be.

“Shetland Farm Dairies is great in the winter time when there are no boats. But as soon as the boats start coming in again, we’re forgotten about.”

He added the dairy had been considering the purchase of new pasteurising equipment which would add six days to the shelf-life of its milk. But he says the £300,000 spend is not warranted.

Mr Byers said he had raised the issue with politicians Alistair Carmichael and Tavish Scott.

Speaking to this newspaper, Mr Scott – who favours EU membership – called on customers to get behind the local business.

He said Shetland milk was a “great product”, with good packaging and a long shelf-life. But he stopped short of backing Mr Byers’ calls for an EU exit or status as a crown dependency.

“Gerry is making a really serious point about the importance of the Shetland dairy and the need for Shetland consumers to use Shetland milk or lose it,” Mr Scott said.

He added talks needed to be held with supermarket chains about the issue. He highlighted the Co-op which, he said, had introduced a product in direct competition with Shetland milk.

“It’s certainly not good news for the local milk industry because it demonstrably undercuts the local product.”

Asked whether he agreed the issue was worth leaving the EU for, he said: “I think we would need to look at every option to win the trust and the buying power of the consumer before we went that far.”

A Customs and Excise restriction on liquid cows’ milk helps protect the dairy farming industry in Jersey, following recognition the island would struggle to compete with mass-produced dairy produce.

The Shetland Times has learned that around half of the farm-land in Jersey is rented, with a high price to be paid. The island suffers from high food import costs, which adds to the expense of supplying winter feed for cattle.


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • May 13th, 2016 22:24

    Mr Byers is quite right about this. Of course, vast dairy farms in France, Belgium, Ireland, etc., can produce milk cheaper than small farms in Shetland.

    In order to maintain our own dairy industry – if we want to have one and I suggest we do – we must protect it from unfair competition like loss leading practices by major supermarkets and also, provide assistance with investing in machinery and equipment to establish production of the longer life products which are eating into local dairy sales.

    Just like Jersey, an autonomous Shetland, clear of EU and UK/Holyrood interference would be able to protect its own agriculture in a way that is currently impossible.

  • Kathy Greaves

    • May 14th, 2016 13:47

    It is time that the dairy produced more ‘high value’ food items – they already sell buttermilk, cream and butter locally, so why not yoghurt, ice cream and milk shakes too? This would need some financial investment as well as new machinery: more staff would need to be employed and there could be no wasteful dumping perfectly good milk.

    This would need a change of mindset by dairy farmers who are hard working and dedicated to what they do, to think outside their comfort zone, become more innovative and entrepreneurial to make the dairy pay.

    I don’t know but assume there are milk and milk shake dispensing machines in school kitchens throughout the island – if not, why not?

  • David Spence

    • May 14th, 2016 17:58

    I believe the Supermarkets control around 70% of the food market, and it this, I think, which is putting many British milk producers out of business.

    I believe the Supermarket buys the milk for around 5 pence, where it costs the farmer around 3pence, and then sells it for 30,40 or 50 pence a pint. So, there is a massive turnover for the Supermarkets.

    I would be interested in what Tesco’s or the Co-op offers local milk producers, and what they sell it for to the customer?

    However, if the UK was to exit the EU, I do not think it would be in the best interests of the consumer?

    • Ali Inkster

      • May 15th, 2016 13:48

      So you wish to remain subservient to the corporate oligarchy of the EU? How do you think that will work out for the consumer should folks be daft enough to vote to remain?

    • Gordon Harmer

      • May 15th, 2016 16:06

      David this is what farmers received in June last year, “Figures released by the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for June 2015 put the average farm-gate price – which is the amount of cash farmers receive – at 23.66 pence per litre (ppl), the lowest for five years and down 25% in the last 12 months.
      However, farmers estimate that it costs between 30 and 32p to produce a litre of milk”.
      You would need to go and study what the CAP does to food prices and how it affects the consumer David, once understood you will soon realise that an exit from the EU would be beneficial to us all.

  • Martin Tregonning

    • May 16th, 2016 9:00

    I buy Shetland milk because it is fresher, supports a local industry, and I know that it will always be there even when the boat doesn’t sail.
    Support for local industry has to start at the top, and it’s a shame to stand behind an SIC Councillor in Tescos buying milk from down south.

  • Johan Adamson

    • May 16th, 2016 9:04

    Im sure many of us remember when the milk came from Aberdeen, its not that long ago. Then it was no boat, no milk. It was ridiculous. I noticed the Co-op is now stocking their own brand milk as well as Shetland, like Tesco does, that’s a shame. I think the state has helped them with their new equipment, as it says in the article in the paper, so they are getting state aid, even within the EU.


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