MARK ALLEN: Dairy farmers can unlock rural economy's potential
"Britain's hard-working farmers have always been one of our country's greatest assets. But things haven't been easy in the farming industry lately."
The terrible weather that has been around since last summer, coupled with the rising cost of animal feed, have forced farmers' costs up.
At the same time, retailers are rightly trying to offer hard-pressed consumers the lowest possible prices.
This means squeezed returns for the farmers and milk processors alike. In a challenging economic climate like this one, there are no easy solutions.
However I am confident that British farming and food processing can be one of the key drivers behind the country's broader economic recovery. So how do we achieve this?
Firstly, we can work closely across the supply chain to create a more stable environment. This will encourage investment, innovation and growth.
In the dairy industry, the UK's largest agricultural sector, we've made some significant progress on this front. Following widespread farmers' protests over milk prices last summer, retailers and other major fresh milk buyers have started paying a bit more for their milk.
This shows they recognise the need to strike a balance between offering consumers value for money and making sure farmers can still make a sustainable return. Some of the major milk processors have also signed up to a voluntary code of conduct. The code offers farmers greater bargaining power and more flexibility within contracts.
Secondly, we can try and do more to turn our agricultural produce into added-value products - which consumers will pay a bit more to enjoy. Building closer relationships within the supply chain and investing in added-value products are important priorities.
However it will inevitably take some time for these measures to bear fruit. And there is one change the Government could decide to make overnight which would give Britain's dairy farmers a major boost.
Everyone wants consumers to buy more British produce. But at the moment, cheese made in Ireland with Irish milk from Irish cows can be labelled as British if it is merely cut and packed in the UK.
This is misleading for consumers and penalises British farmers - who have higher production costs due to their world-leading standards of animal welfare. Simple changes to packaging regulations by the Government would ensure that only cheese produced from British milk on British farms can be labelled as British.
This would reassure consumers that they are truly supporting the domestic dairy sector when they choose to buy British, as well as sending out an important message of support to Britain's farmers.
We have an opportunity to support an economic recovery by unlocking the potential in our rural economy. This is the positive vision we need to deliver on if we are to encourage the next generation of farmers to follow in their predecessors' footsteps -and keep producing high-quality, affordable British food and drink for us all to savour."
This article was published in the Dail Mail, Money Section on 28th May 2013.