Tensions were running high this week at the NFU conference as farmers pleaded with retailers and the government to help prevent the demise of British agriculture.

A milk industry in "meltdown", power abuse by supermarkets and legislation and red tape were all high on the agenda.

A frustrated NFU president Peter Kendall urged farmers attending the conference to submit allegations of supermarket abuses to the Competition Commission inquiry.

Despite huge problems facing farmers, only a handful have come forward to date, said Kendall. "I will be pleading with the farmers to come forward. We need to expose what's going on.

"The NFU does not want an all-out war - we want a balanced relationship. Maybe it is impossible and I'm being naive, but I think we can achieve that."

He called on Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons to "get off their backsides" and stop pressurising their suppliers on price. He also vented his anger about the supermarkets' insistence that the crisis was simply due to supply and demand.

"Three dairy farmers are going out of business every day," he said. "We are not manufacturing nuts and bolts: production cannot be turned on and off at the touch of a switch. We want to engage with supermarkets to offer our customers the security and quality that come with a UK supply base, but they must understand that the farming businesses that make up that supply base must be profitable."

Kendall urged the big four retailers to adapt the "Waitrose model", which he said was a genuine, transparent partnership that promoted sustainable pricing.

He accused conference speaker and Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King of failing to grasp the seriousness of the milk farmers' plight and suggested King "try something new today and give suppliers a fair deal".

King was not to be browbeaten. "We cannot and will not prop up inefficient businesses," he said. "We believe the price we pay reflects the marketplace."

However, he said he did expect Sainsbury's milk suppliers to get a better price once its Dairy Development Group (DDG), involving 450 farmers from the direct groups of Robert Wiseman and Dairy Crest, was up and running. The first meetings of the group were due to begin in the next few weeks and the scheme, designed to create a sustainable milk supply, should be fully operational towards the end of April, he said.

But for milk suppliers and other farmers to receive a premium, they would have to provide added value, such as the social gains attached to Fairtrade bananas, or an improved environmental impact, he warned. "There must be tangible benefits for the customer so that we can explain why they are paying more for that milk," he said.

King gave his support to the NFU's plan to set up a responsibility index to track the ethical behaviour of supermarkets and said he would be delighted to be the first retailer to trial it.

He and fellow speaker David Miliband MP reiterated Kendall's rallying call for farmers to give evidence to the Commission.

The Defra secretary of state sidestepped the question of whether he thought supermarkets were to blame for dairy farmers going out of business, but said: "If farmers have got complaints, this is the time to speak out."

The conference also heard about Miliband's commitment to proportionate and cost-efficient legislation, following Kendall's warning that British farming could not compete with disproportionate and badly targeted red tape. "That is why Defra has been commended as a leading department by the Better Regulation Executive for its moves to cut red tape," said Miliband.

"They will be worth £30m to farming communities by 2010 and I am determined we deliver on these savings."

Efforts to cut the cost of legislation are already under way, with the NFU and the Environment Agency attempting to bolt existing assurance schemes on to Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control inspections.

The conference also took heart from the commitment to CAP reform by Mariann Fischer-Boel, European Commissioner for agriculture and farming.

She is carrying out a "CAP health check", which could bring about full decoupling of payments to farmers in all EU states before 2013, and would create a level playing field for British farmers and those on the Continent.

But for many milk farmers, the help may come too little too late.n