Dairy farmers fear they may soon be lumped with rivers of unsold milk as the virus pandemic drastically cuts sales.

Over the past few days, Malta Dairy Products, which provides Benna milk cartons, started sending letters to farmers warning them of worsening demand forecast for the coming months.

“We were told in writing that, by December, in our case, Benna might not be able to take the same volume of the product from our farm. This could be a real disaster,” one concerned farmer said.

He estimates that of the 2,000 litres of milk he supplies from his cows every day he could soon end up with as much as a fifth being surplus. That, he said, would negatively affect his already thin profit margins.

You cannot just switch off a cow, like you can do to a production line or a machine

Farmers like him – 96 form part of a nationwide dairy cooperative – have been putting up with dwindling demand for fresh milk as the pandemic saw hotels, cafes and restaurants struggle to fill tables in the face of restrictive measures and reduced tourist arrivals.

Add to this the flooding of the milk market with European alternatives over the past few years and farmers say the situation is growing increasingly desperate.

“The problem with being a dairy herdsman is that you cannot just switch off a cow, like you can do to a production line or a machine. Cows need milking and feeding every day and, like it or not, they are going to produce milk which needs to be sold,” the farmer said.

He added that, if no solution is found to increase public demand for local products, he and other farmers will be lumped with excess milk that will likely be flushed down the drain.

A fifth of the 2,000 litres supplied daily could soon end up being surplus

He believes farmers need support but concedes that, under the EU’s free market state aid rules, this is no easy task.

Brian Vella, who leads Malta’s dairy farm cooperative, said that, so far, all the supply of milk coming from farms was being taken up but the situation was not looking good for the future.

Sales, he said, are down and the cooperative is holding talks with the government to try and tap some EU funds to help support local farmers.

“We planned for better days but, then, with COVID-19 those days are not what we are experiencing, so we have to change plans,” he said.

Vella said no decision had yet been made on what cuts in milk purchases will be made from farmers and the cooperative was trying to find a solution that would be fair for all.

Peter Agius, a former MEP candidate and advocate for protecting local agriculture, has taken up the farmers’ cause.

In the coming days, he will be writing to the authorities with suggestions on how to assist the industry.

“As a matter of national interest and food security, we need to support the local dairy industry by bolstering local consumption and investing in industry support mechanisms until the market returns to normal levels,” he told Times of Malta.

Agius said that although member states cannot promote local over foreign produce, they are allowed to promote consumption of healthy produce.

So, while it would be illegal to promote Maltese milk over, say, that imported from Italy, there is nothing stopping public campaigns promoting the quality of fresh milk products without bringing into the picture their national origin, Agius said.

“We should also keep in mind that the Maltese dairy farms play a fundamental role in the upkeep of our countryside, given that roughly half of our arable land is used to produce fodder for the over 6,000 cows in our farms,” he noted.

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