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.
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.