Milk in Europe

17 May 2009

Milk in Europe

On 29th January 1909 a dozen or so farmers in a pub in the village of Oud-Gastel signed a contract to deliver milk from their herds – a total of two hundred cows – to a newly-established dairy factory. Supply was thereby assured and the factory could begin production.

by Hugo Polderman

At the end of April 2009, my local paper announced the closure of this same factory, after a hundred years in which it had proved a solid and reliable employer. The announcement caused widespread dismay in the village, and above all amongst the factory's hundred or more employees. . The newspaper spoke to people who had worked there for more than forty years. René Blommers, for example, a personnel officer: “The bosses got a great deal out of the people who are being finished," he said. "If there was ever need for it, everyone was prepared to work nights." An example of a good working atmosphere and of the bond between village and its dairy factory.

The background to the closure is the merger between two dairy firms, Campina and Friese Vlag. According to the resulting dairy giant, there is no longer any place for small factories. The same newspaper that announced the closure carried a full-page ad for 'price fighter' Aldi: "Prices slashed on all dairy products," read the copy. A litre of fresh milk costs 45 cents (40p/US61c). Farmers see 26 cents of this. In real terms the price has never been so low, barely covering costs.

A few weeks ago a farmers' organisation demonstrated for three days outside the Parliament in The Hague, constructing a complete cow-byre on the steps of the national legislature. They were demanding more regulation of price and supply in the European Union's dairy policies. Through expansion of firms and intensification of production, including by keeping more cows in their stalls throughout the year, the farmers are trying to keep their heads above water. All that is happening, however, is that they are falling ever further into debt. And the traditional Dutch landscape with meadows full of cows and calves is disappearing. The farmers' demonstrations, and their pleas for more regulation of supply and price, find no support other than from the SP. Our Christian Democrat agriculture minister Gerda Verburg is at the forefront in Europe when it comes to favouring the ever greater broadening of the free market.

That's what these elections, on 4th June, are all about.

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