What do the farmers out in the field, in the dairy and in the milking parlour think about Brexit?
No-one knows what’s around the corner for the dairy industry.
Specific negotiations over a future trade deal haven’t even started. Some experts predict oblivion; others see opportunity.
So let’s start with what we do know: the state of the industry 20 years ago, and what it’s like today.
The number of dairy farmers has shrunk dramatically: In 1996 there were around 35,000. Now there are around 13,000 – a drop of almost two-thirds.
Farms are getting bigger: The average herd size was 75 cows and now it’s 140. And as for the cost of a pint: back in 1996 it was 36 pence, now it’s 43 pence – and many farmers say it’s too low.
So how do those working in the industry feel about what the next 20 years may hold?
James and Rhiannan Lomas have a dairy farm of around 200 cows in Cheshire. They almost went out of business two years ago because of the collapse in the milk price. But now they are part of a small number of farms starting to export liquid milk (as opposed to powdered or products such as cheese) to Qatar.
The Middle East nation was left without milk almost overnight after a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Mr Lomas says: “It’s amazing. Every day we thought of giving it all up. But hopefully now Brexit will improve our outlook and open up a lot of markets – if the politicians get it right.”
He adds that there have definitely been some dark times. “Hopefully it will give us a chance to make us a more of a secure and better future. Certainly the fluctuation of the dairy business will always be there, but the ability to change markets might give us the chance to go elsewhere.”
Ms Lomas explains: “It makes you feel a lot more positive for us.” Looking down at her son Ethan, she adds: “And for him.”
Andrew Henderson is the man who secured the deal with a hypermarket chain in Qatar. He runs a dairy called Nemi, also based in Cheshire. It bottles milk from farmers in the surrounding counties and could soon be the first in the UK to export fresh milk to China.
These cows are given an enriched feed so they produce milk high in selenium, which can be in short supply in the Chinese diet. A supermarket there has just placed an order.
“Brexit is having a very positive effect – we have farmers who are getting a much better milk price and we also have more interest from countries inside Europe and outside Europe for fresh British milk. We are trying to supply that need.”
He says the Chinese are interested in British milk because they see it as “pure”. They also want to know exactly which farm the product is coming from.
“We were in China in June and we were sitting with some highly decorated officials from the Chinese government and they made a point of saying it’s very easy to do a deal with one country – but very difficult to do a deal with 27.”
Would this be happening without the Brexit vote? “I believe not. There was no will from the major European cooperatives and organisations to deliver our fresh milk to China as they are already within those markets with dried milk and other products from Europe,” says Mr Henderson.
His business partner is Mark Langslow, from County Milk Products. “Regarding Brexit, I think we’ve made the right decision. I think it makes us want to stand on our own two feet, and forces us to stand on our own two feet.”
However not too far away, near Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, David Brookes has a dairy herd of 180 cows. He’s a member of the West Midlands Dairy Board. He relies on his daughter to help with the business and talks of what experts have referred to as the “shocking crisis” in the dairy labour industry.
“There’s only around 1% on jobseekers allowance in Staffordshire. Whether it’s the butchery side of things and processing meat or whether it’s processing dairy products we have become reliant on a migrant labour force, mainly from Eastern Europe,” he says.
“We need the skilled labour. And at the moment they are not coming over.”
He says that the devaluation of the pound is largely to blame, but also the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“One of the problems is the classification of ‘labour’. Because the government is very keen to get a lot of skilled labour. A lot of our processing workers (such as those that operate milking equipment) are skilled, but their skills are not clearly defined as skilled under government guidelines,” Mr Brookes explains.
He believes that if restrictions are imposed “it could be very difficult”.
Further south, in Wiltshire, Jenny Quick helps to run a small family dairy herd.
“People may tell you their view,” she says, “But no one knows. We just have no idea yet.”
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