As former supplier No. 362 to Wexford Milk Producers Ltd, I have been watching with concern and interest the recent well publicised problems in Wexford and the fallout in the wider milk production/processing scene. I would like to share some broader concerns that I have about current directions and possible implications for our family farmers.
I frequently have visitors staying from all over the world. My table always has Wexford Milk and Wexford Cheese on it and I have been regularly impressed with the attention these visitors give to it. They read the carton, they love that its local, they ask about its history, they want to take some Wexford Cheese home with them and even write and ask me to send them on some afterwards.
They love and embrace the feeling of being in and of Wexford. How valuable is that? What extra value does that bring to our milk? Yesterday, I needed a litre of milk and called to a shop where I thought I could pick up a carton of Wexford milk. Alas, they only had something called "Apple Green milk"...hmmm!
I left the shop without milk and drove to a second shop where I got my Wexford Milk. When we allow others to take away our local values like this, are they in fact taking money out of our pockets as well? I believe they are. I believe this removal of the rootedness of milk will ultimately make farmers and rural areas much poorer.
Looking back, the perishable nature of milk and its products led to a strong localised system of production, processing and marketing rooted to defined areas. The creameries and processors of the past always had a name that included a placename which rooted it in the minds of producers and consumers alike. The products of Mitchelstown Creamery or Kilmeadon Creamery or Wexford Creamery were clearly branded, defined and rooted in their locality.
The support of a dairy farmer for his creamery was as fundamental as his support for the local church or local GAA club. Selling your milk to an outside processor was unheard of. Likewise the products carried the local name all over the world giving a great pride and loyalty also on the consumer side. Now, insidiously, bit by bit, in relation to milk, the link between place and product has been almost broken. The number of present processors that have a placename in their branding is now small - Thurles and Strathroy being the only major ones that I can think of.
What are the implications for producers? What are the consequences for milk assembly costs and milk price and what are the consequences for general well being of farmers and communities?
I believe we are witnessing some of these consequences in the Wexford saga and elsewhere. What happens to vital producer loyalty when their placename disappears from the brand? Of course, producer loyalty disappears aswell! If I as a Wexfordman cannot produce for a Wexford creamery, then I will sell my milk to wherever I get the best price. No other countyman is any different. Yes, there may be a lag time for a decade or two after, say Ballyragget Co-op is renamed Glanbia. Yes it may remain in the minds of older Kilkenny folk that it is their local co-op but what about the next generation of producers? Why should any producer have dying loyalty to a processor with a made-up name that lacks history, locality and rootedness?
On the other hand how much additional money has to go on marketing to make up for the loss of the place story? The end result which we are seeing develop will be a market place defined by transport where tankers criss cross each other up and down the country, using huge amounts of oil to assemble milk that will sell at base commodity prices as Apple Green or whatever. The assembly and added marketing costs will further eat into overall price leaving a diminishing fraction for producers. Retail price will also inevitably diminish over time as milk and its products further lose their brand values such as luxury, pride, localness and speciality.
Is it too late to say STOP to this?
Across the world there is a growing counter trend of consumers becoming more discriminating in regard to where and how and by whom their food is produced. Consumers are reaching out to engage with their food and its origins. They are adding up its carbon footprint and its "food miles". They believe that in food production, small is beautiful and local is king. They are happy to pay extra for food that is rooted in ancient land and deep values, food like that which has been made by Wexford Creamery. Just saying!