NINE dairy farmers on Bute who have resigned from First Milk to try and find a new buyer are being urged to change their minds and return to the co-op.
The breakaway group has had discussions with both Lancashire-based Yew Tree Dairy and Stranraer-based Lactalis, but nothing has been signed and sealed, and it seems that First Milk's door could still be open to them.
Back in 1998, the island had a 32-strong milk field – but now only 12 are left, and two of those are set to quit by the end of June, and another has already stopped production.
The resignations were prompted by the continual erosion of First Milk prices in 2015 and 2016, which saw Bute producers down to 13p per litre at one point.
But this week, the co-op’s milk sourcing director Paul Flanagan told The Scottish Farmer: “The Bute producers that resigned did so before prices started motoring and we have been in contact with them to understand their views.
“Now that the First Milk turnaround is complete and our milk prices are competitive, the members' meetings at the end of this month give us the opportunity to finalise these conversations – currently on-going – as we can complete our business plan for the new milk year.”
NFU Scotland’s milk policy manager George Jamieson said: “This is a hugely important point in the future of dairying on Bute. Having endured the most challenging financial crisis over the past two years, and a milk price that left no hope of covering costs, Bute dairy farmers deserve enormous credit for not only surviving but for pulling together to consider the best way forward for dairy in Bute.
“The remaining dairy producers on the island cannot go through further periods of uncertainty, and that given the need for critical mass, there needs to be a collective agreement on the way forward," said Mr Jamieson. “Recognising the sensitivities, NFUS continues to support its members through this important time, meeting with the producers on several occasions to assist in the decision making process.
“That includes recent discussions with the Mount Stuart Trust on the need to support existing dairy farmers and the potential to create new dairying tenancies on the island, so that milk volumes are maintained. Dairy farming on Bute and other peripheral milk fields is hugely significant. This is not just about the harsh economics, this is about a valuable asset on Bute, which if lost is unlikely to return," he warned.
“That highlights how important it is for all parties with an interest in the island’s dairy sector to work towards a more positive future.”
Bute Estate factor Bob Baines said: “The estate continues to work closely with its dairy farmers to meet the challenges brought about by the market and First Milk. The premature exit of three estate farmers from dairying is disappointing. The onward joint focus of the estate and its dairy group is the retention of dairying on the island and in spite of the challenges we remain optimistic about the future."
Nevertheless, The Scottish Farmer believes that as many as six current or former milk producers are now negotiating wayleave from their Bute Estate tenancies.