Since the demise of the milk marketing boards, dairy supply chains have attempted to form sensible business relationships. Some have been more active and successful than others. Farmhouse cheese manufacturers by the nature of being dairy farmers as well as processors were quick to establish supply, often with neighbouring farmers. However, the vast rump of the industry has not evolved to meet the market conditions.
Retailers and their supplying processors have to bear responsibility for the lack of clear strategy. Collectively, we are big, successful and powerful. Hence, surely we have all the answers?
Well, no actually. The industry has waited for a solution to be discovered and then to be led into a land of, if not milk and honey, at least one with clearer direction. The single failure of the post farmgate sector has been to avoid engaging with the producer sector in a meaningful way. For all the energy expended, consultants employed, rationality avoided, have we actually managed to conclude much? There is no single answer, no silver bullet, but rather a variety of solutions that we must explore.
Asda has over several years of work built a dedicated fresh liquid milk supply chain. Along with Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, we publish the price we pay for our milk - exactly what the farming industry asked for when seeking greater transparency.
We also pay a premium of 1p a litre above the basic Arla producer price, equivalent to £8,000 a year to each farmer in the Asda partnership. Not to be sniffed at, and certainly helpful when it comes to investing in new machinery or upgrading existing buildings.
I note that our major competitors are still utterly silent on the price their dairy farmers receive. That is this industry's collective failure -the failure to own up to responsibilities. With a transparent price across the board, all 14,000 dairy farmers would be able to plan their businesses with the full understanding of their market, irrespective of whether they are direct or co-op suppliers. The challenge isn't to those already being open but to those with something to hide who choose to continually stay schtum.
Last month we turned our attention from liquid milk to cheese by launching a ground-breaking two- year deal, the first of its kind, with Dairy Crest and the farmers who supply milk to its Aspatria dairy.
We have committed to take cheese from the Cumbria-based dairy for the next two years, as well as promising to review forward prices only every six months. No other supermarket does this, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to plan ahead.
We've also called for an end to the 'Cheddar lottery'. All our Asda brand Cheddar is British. This can't be said for other supermarkets, which source from a number of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Poland, Latvia and Ireland, as well as Britain - all on tenders lasting for six months, when the merry-go-round turns again. How does a cheese business build for the future with a handshake that lasts 168 days? And how does a customer know what they're getting when the label obfuscates with 'packed in the UK'?
I would like to urge other supermarkets to follow our lead in supporting British dairy farmers. Together we can ensure we have a vibrant and successful dairy industry for many more years to come. Without taking shared responsibility for their fate, we risk putting many more livelihoods at risk.