144 people look likely to lose their jobs following Medina dairy’s decision to close the Watson’s Dairy site in Hampshire this week.


According to reports, the final straw for Watson’s was the loss an important retail customer, thought to be Sainsbury’s. A statement from Medina Dairy said “The proposed closure reflects the extremely challenging market conditions being faced by all in the fresh liquid milk sector and in particular the loss for Watson’s of a major retail contract which will make the site unviable”.


Medina’s website informs visitors that Watson’s Dairy was the first processing plant the company purchased, back in 2004. Further exploration of the website reveals that the plant was awarded a British Retail Consortium (BRC) AA Grade accreditation, “reflecting an ongoing investment programme being undertaken at the site”. Alas, it all seems to be in vain.


Watson’s is just one of dozens of dairy processing plants that have been closed in the UK in recent years. You may recall that Tomlinson’s Dairies, in Wrexham, which had secured a contract to supply Sainsbury’s with 100 million litres of own-label milk in 2016, went into administration in October 2019. German dairy giant, Muller, closed its Foston dairy in Derbyshire last year and the farmer-owned Arla Foods has recently announced it is to dispose of its Llandyrnog creamery in Denbighshire, North Wales.


Following Medina’s decision to close Watson’s Dairy, chief executive Sheazad Hussain, said “By simplifying and consolidating our processing activity we will be able to create a more sustainable and appropriately scaled business”. Similar messages have come from Muller and others seeking to streamline their operations and cut costs. But, is this really the way to create a “more sustainable and appropriately scaled business”?


In my opinion, the ongoing closure of dairy sites, like Watson’s, Foston and Llandyrnog, sums up the totally unstainable and inappropriately scaled dairy industry that big dairy companies are creating. Together they have become masters of their own downfall, continually consolidating their processing facilities and pulling in milk from far flung farms all over the country, hoping they to live to fight another day.


According to the various appointed spokesmen for the dairy companies concerned, they will adapt and move on, pouring more milk into the few, larger processing sites that remain and Mr Hussain at Medina Dairy assures us that customers and suppliers will not be affected. But how is that more sustainable and just who is that change in scale of operation appropriate for?


What Mr Hussain and his contemporaries fail to acknowledge is that both suppliers and customers have been dramatically affected by the ongoing brutal rationalisation of the milk processing sector. Farmers who supply the milk at one end continue to go out of business, thanks to the low prices they receive for their milk. Whilst more and more of those who consume the product, are switching to milk alternatives, as concerns grow about the provenance of milk and the impact of an increasingly industrialised dairy regime on our planet.


Perhaps the changing structure of the UK’s milk processing industry is elementary my dear Watson’s. If you continue to fight tooth and nail to compete in a milk market that is not sustainable, expect some pain.


At Free Range Dairy Network we are fortunate to work with smaller, family-run dairy businesses like Cotteswold Dairy in Gloucestershire and Dales Dairies in Yorkshire; both with strong roots in their home counties. Both Cotteswold Dairy and Dales Dairies were founded in the same year; 1938. They are still owned and run by the same families over 80 years later and they also still buy milk from local farmers and service local customers.


Unfortunately, many other businesses like these have been driven out of business by bigger competitors muscling in on their local markets. But, simply by being smaller and maintaining a stronger local presence, they are able to benefit from the loyalty of a good number of customers who feel a connection.


In many ways smaller dairies are more nimble and able to take advantage of new opportunities to deliver what customers want. When we first started looking for processors to produce Pasture Promise free range milk, we really struggled to find any willing to segregate this milk from other farms in their supply pool. Big dairy companies rely on pushing as many litres a day through their gleaming stainless steel monoliths and stopping the plant to bottle another line slows up the whole process.


I think a dairy business that is hoping to be sustainable and appropriately scaled, should look ling and hard at how our attitudes to food and its production are changing. As every piece on this subject says, there will always be a demand for cheap milk. But to build a business that relies too heavily on one or two big customers is a risky strategy and the fallout is testimony to this.


We should fight to protect the remaining smaller dairies we have left, before they become victims of further industry consolidation and the great tasting milk they produce is channeled into that vast lake of white stuff. Many are already lamenting the loss of small, local abattoirs that enabled farmers to transport animals a few miles down the road with minimal stress and gave local people the chance to enjoy high quality beef, lamb and pork. Don’t let the same happen to your local dairy company.


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