Plans to build the UK's first new commodity cheese plant for more than 40 years look to be crumbling. Partners in Cheese had set its sights on the £50m venture at Workington in Cumbria, but has again failed to raise the support of dairy farming leaders in the region.

Its tenacious Dutch sponsor, Ronald Akkerman, was hoping to poach suppliers from Dairy Crest Direct's Aspatria farmers, who are on notice following First Milk's purchase of the creamery.

But he has failed to reach agreement and is now offering contracts to individuals signing up by Christmas.

It came as welcome news for First Milk, which has been fighting for the hearts and minds of DCD producers in Cumbria.

The co-op needs them to supply the cheese business at Aspatria, and has given them until 31 January to make up their minds.

Many are reluctant to supply Aspatria because of a lower milk price, while PiC is offering to match their DC price.

First Milk refused to be drawn into speculation about Akkerman's climbdown. "It's a delicate situation. We still want the DC Directs and will keep lines of communication open."

Other sources suggested Akkerman's move may just be a ploy to force farmers' hands. Akkerman himself said he could abandon his Cumbrian plant and start afresh in Wales.

DCD insisted it still had other co-op buyers up its sleeves, and several disgruntled farmers claimed they would sooner quit dairying than supply First Milk.

Many in the industry still believe Akkerman's project is based on poor analysis.

"There is already enough capacity for commodity cheese," said consultant Michael Bessey.

"United Dairy Farmers is expanding in Northern Ireland and there is also talk of a new factory possibly being built in Southern Ireland. That cheese will come here."