Get Off Your Horse and Drink Your Milk! (John Wayne)
Cow’s milk is funny stuff when you think about its original purpose (suckling calves) and how much we have come to depend on it in our western diet. It is also an urban myth that the Japanese don’t drink it. Cleopatra had a bath in milk (with Sid James as I recall) and every politician in the land fears being asked how much a pint costs.
All this came to mind when the recent stushie between dairy farmers, supermarkets and foodie celebs over the unsustainable price farmers get paid for milk hit the headlines recently. The problem is that the famers are at the bottom of the supply chain and are in a monopsonistic relationship with their sole customer – the supermarkets. Sound or feel familiar?
Recent press coverage suggests that farmers are thinking of co-operating together to force the price of milk up to more sustainable levels and the Scottish Govt. have chipped in with £100k to get things moving – look out for something called Dairy Farmers Together. I am a little confused given that farmers have been co-operating “forever” both formally and informally and that groups like First Milk are actually farmer owned milk co-ops – see http://www.firstmilk.co.uk/default.html and I imagine that they are involved in price negotiations anyway. Be that as it may and on the basis that supermarkets are not exactly benevolent organisations I’m with the teuchters. Maybe, farmers should demand the reformation of the Milk Marketing Board. Its duty was to act as buyer of last resort in the market, thereby guaranteeing a minimum price for milk producers. The Tories abolished it in 1993.
Anyway, this milky froth got me thinking. All this investment ready rhetoric around Big Society Capital and other loan funds that the sector has been debating (or avoiding) recently seems to place social entrepreneurs and social enterprises in the same position as milk farmers. That is to say, firmly at the bottom of the supply chain and susceptible to potentially questionable decisions of folk who one imagines are more concerned about the rights of capital rather than the social mission of applicant organisations.
So, here is an idea. Follow the farmers and co-operate. I’m continually amazed that social entrepreneurs cleave to their (host) organisation and view it as sacrosanct. I also shudder when I hear someone say that their service, organisation or mission is “unique” and don’t get the bigger picture about markets, customers, spotting opportunities, sweating their resources, finding investors and how to win business. In short, the message is brutally simple. Ensure your enterprise is “a player” rather than something that is played.
Form a business consortium and flex your collective muscles or grow by acquisition, merger or takeover. If this is too unpalatable because of cultural values or if you would rather be a project than a business then fine, but here is a wee word to the wise. The number of dairy farmers in the UK is in sharp decline – just like the number of voluntary organisations and charities. Trade unions see CICs in the public sector as a stop along the road to privatisation because those CICs will themselves be shafted in the procurement battles when the likes of SERCO and G4S come calling. So, just like those farmers, don’t accept a future as downstream low cost providers – co-operate to win business, to defeat your rivals and to make your customer(s) recognise that unsustainable prices don’t work for anyone.
I’m away for some milk of human kindness.
NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.