Angry farmers halt national highway traffic over milk prices

Фото: ЧТК

Czech dairy farmers took to the highways Monday morning to bring the nation’s traffic to a snail’s pace for two hours. Protesting the critically low purchase price of milk - and what they see as a lack of political will to do anything about it – nearly 2,000 dairy farmers overran 20 highways in seven regions. It was the second protest in as many months, aimed at forcing what the farmers’ say is a desperate situation into the public eye.

Photo: CTK
It only took about 200 tractors to bring the Czech Republic’s highway system to a near halt. The issue: the plummeting purchase price of milk, which is forcing dairy farmers across the EU to sell for well below production costs. Jan Veleba is president of the Czech Agrarian Chamber, which organised the blockade.

“We’ve run out of patience in the Czech Republic. We are the only developed livestock breeding country that even after months of negotiations has yet to receive any promise from our politicians, who are just turning their backs to the situation. So we are protesting to make Czech politicians realise that car scrapping taxes and banks are not the only issues of the day – dairy farming is the most important branch of agriculture, and it has gone into decline.”

The recent fall in the purchase price of milk in the Czech Republic has been precipitous, from nine crowns per litre to six in one year. The Agrarian Chamber worries that the rate of that decline will see 20,000 dairy cows slaughtered by the end of the year and a corresponding growth in unemployment. The low price of milk lost Czech dairy farmers 4.5 billion crowns in the first half of 2009 alone. According to Mr Veleba the collapse in dairy prices can be put down to a number of factors.

Photo: CTK
“It’s the fault of the European Commissioner of Agriculture and the poor farming policy of the EU. It’s the result of the EU having given up on a vast number of global markets in 2008 – markets in butter and dried milk in particular – with a double-digit decrease in the percent of exports. That’s the first reason, the second being the global economic crisis.”

The main focus of the farmers’ ire is the Czech interim Ministry of Agriculture, from whom they demand a minimum purchase price on milk. The ministry, however, says that it has already taken steps in its one-month tenure to ease the situation. The national school-milk programme, cancelled two years ago, has been renewed, and nearly 1 billion crowns from the so-called “Barroso package” for economic stimulus is to go to the modernisation of the milk sector. Hugo Roldán is chief of communications at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Photo: CTK
“The ministry definitely thinks that these measures can substantially help the farmers. It is necessary to say that we are part of the European Union, so whatever kind of help we can imagine has to be approved by the European Commission, which is not an easy process. And it is also necessary to take into account that farmers not only in the Czech Republic but also in the whole EU are operating in an open market, so the loss of demand and the offer of commodities have to be respected as well. So the Ministry of Agriculture is taking this range of measures to help the farmers, but the farmers themselves have to come up with new approaches and with alternative ways to help themselves too.”

The protest is by no means a Czech initiative; one week ago, Western European farmers similarly hijacked a Belgian highway causing a 12km queue into Brussels. And two months ago, Czech farmers were joined by their colleagues from neighbouring countries, resulting in 8,000 farmers on Wenceslas Square, many with cattle in tow. Should the current protest fail to achieve the desired result, farmers have threatened to lay siege to the warehouses of retail chains, who they say abuse a privileged position on the market.