WORRIED Cumbrian dairy farmers fear they could soon be forced to pour milk away or be faced with farmgate price cuts due to the closure of the food service sector.

Recent weeks have seen severe milk market disruption due to the coronavirus lockdown which has seen catering, cafe and restaurants close.

Although Cumbria seems to have so far escaped having to dump milk or take deferred payments, many producers are worried this could happen as the industry approaches its usual spring flush of milk.

One Cumbrian dairy farmer told The Cumberland News that they had received a letter from their milk processor, North Lakes Foods, based in Penrith, stating that they may have to cut production, while those supplying milk processor, Muller have been requested to reduce milk supply by three percent.

Around 250 dairy farmers supply First Milk, owners of the Lake District Creamery at Aspatria, and many others farmer-co-operative, Arla, owners of Lockerbie Creamery.

So far, these two biggest co-operatives, have not signalled a cut in production, but one farmer said cuts in milk prices could happen very soon.

Robert Craig, a First Milk director and Armathwaite dairy farmer said he had, along with farming colleagues, spent most of the past weeks, trying to persuade the Government to help stop a complete meltdown in the country’s dairy supply chain. “Since the beginning of the lockdown the dairy industry has lost around 10 per cent of its market into food service – catering, café, restaurants etc.

“As the industry approaches its usual spring flush of milk we face the huge challenge of processing this surplus milk with little or no surplus processing capacity in which to do so.

“In an attempt to capture some value those businesses more exposed to food service markets are skimming their milk then trading the fat into a severely depressed market.

“This current scenario is leading to polarised farm-gate prices which will if there’s no Government intervention very soon effect everyone,” said Mr Craig.

Alistair Mackintosh, west Cumbrian farmer and National Farmers Union Cumbrian council delegate said he had seen sight of a letter from Defra secretary, George Eustice, who said the Government could relax competition rules, which would enable surplus milk to be redirected through the supply chain.

“We have heard loud and clear our dairy farmers’ concerns which is why we are further suspending competition rules law to allow dairy farmers to work together on some of the most pressing challenges they are facing,” said Mr Eustice.

“I am also urging farm businesses to access the loans that are available from their bank to support them in this period.”

But Mr Mackintosh described the move as a “waste of time” for farmers.

“They are asking dairy companies to work together to find new markets if they are so inclined.

“What is wrong with taking the surplus milk off the market and putting it in storage and then to the supermarkets?

“But then they have their own suppliers and how much do they need.”

To help curb output, the NFU has proposed a reduction scheme to take out 20m litres per week for a 12-week period at potentially 15ppl, but has reached a stumbling block with the Treasury.

“It is vital we find a solution and get this scheme in place.

“It will be exceptionally tough and there will be very, very few dairy farmers not adversely affected by this in the next few months,” added Mr Mackintosh.

A letter send to Defra by farm groups said: “Already around a quarter of the dairy industry has been affected within just a matter of weeks.

“We need action now, as well as a more considered response for the medium and longer-term measures, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the UK dairy sector.”