As a final year student, I am currently writing my dissertation. The topic I chose to explore was Public Relations and Lobbying within the agriculture industry, as the recent news topics sparked my interest as a farmer’s daughter.
2015 saw the farming income for Northern Ireland fall from £311.8m to £182.5m, which was largely due to supermarkets and processors driving down farm produce prices. This was not an issue just within Northern Ireland, but throughout the whole of the UK.
So to understand why this campaign matters so much to farmers, I will explain the complex system (for myself if nothing else). Dairy farmers milk their cows twice or three times a day 365 days a year, which is collected by a milk tanker (nearly every day) to be taken to the processors where it will be pasteurised for human consumption. The majority of dairy farmers are locked into a contract with these processors and unable to leave. Combining the facts that supermarkets and processors are cutting the prices of milk and the inflation of the prices of fuel, feed and production, farmers are struggling to keep their farms afloat. They can’t stop feeding their cows or harvesting crops as (1) it is cruelty to animals and (2) a farmer’s actions will have a long term effect in how they can run their farm in the future.
Discouraged by this, farmers took to protesting, which sparked the biggest grassroots campaign the farming industry had seen in recent years; partly funded by the Scottish Government who contributed £100,000. This campaign achieved national media coverage and saw the issue fought through social media, peaceful protests and farming coalitions who communicated on behalf of the farmers.
SOS Dairy harnessed the full power of the Internet through using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to bring the farmers together and to share the issue with the general public. More than 800 individuals added the SOS Dairy ribbon to their profile photos on Twitter, with hundreds more showing the same support on Facebook and using the #SOSDairy hashtag. During this campaign a video called ‘The #SOSdairy song,’ made up of protest footage, became an Internet hit, gaining over 38,000 hits on YouTube. Through the videos’ popularity, the BBC approached the creator to request he preform it on the radio- enabling them to promote the cause further.
To demonstrate a united industry, the issue saw farm groups set aside their differences to form a coalition between NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, Tenant Farmers Association and the Women’s Food and Farming Union. It also brought together those who relied on the farming community such as farming suppliers, vets and lawyers all over the country. Whilst leaders of the coalitions held talks with the processors and supermarkets to achieve fair prices, the farmers named and shamed the milk processors and supermarkets while carrying out protests throughout the country by obstructing processing plants night after night, to show their strength.
Through this campaign major supermarkets backed down by announcing fairer prices for farmers who directly supplied the supermarkets, and processors eventually backed down and in result abandoned their second price cut. A poll carried out by YouGov and The Grocer found that 83% of the public were aware of the protests and 67% stated they think farmers should be paid more, even if it increases the price of milk.
Although this campaign achieved what it set out to do, capturing the public interest and winning the support of the consumer, there is still a long way to go for the industry in order to create a sustainable industry where farmers will profit.
Lauren Sharkey is a 4th year CAM student at Ulster University. She can be contacted on Twitter @lsharkey_37 or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/lauren-sharkey-25776ab0/.