Milk Wars in Britain

Britain's farmers have always been a gloomy lot. There's nothing more they enjoy than the prospect of a good disaster. The possibility of pestilence and bad weather are a combination they've thrived on down the centuries. Not too much, mind, just enough to grumble about.

But this year, the Gods have gone too far and hit rural Britain with a double whammy.

First, it rained steadily for three months and that really is no joke. Crops have been ruined and down in my area, the South-West of England, we've resorted to buying hay from the French. And buying stuff from the French isn't what we like doing. But in the last few days, the weather has changed. It's become sunny enough to get out on the land and start harvesting what can be saved.

But then came the second blow. Our milk processing companies, which buy milk off the farmers and sell it onto the supermarkets, dramatically reduced what they were prepared to pay. You see, the supermarkets see milk as a loss leader, and are happy to make next to nothing if it brings the public in to do their weekly shop.

Meanwhile the farmers complained they were making a loss on each bottle, and started imitating their more vocal French compatriots who tend to cause mayhem in Paris when they're crossed and release sheep, cattle and goats outside the MacDonalds on the Champs Elysees. It didn't quite come to that here, but our farmers have been politely blockading dairies, in a very British way.

Now, if you think this sounds like a lot of fuss over some spilt milk, think again. Even the TV chefs like Jamie Oliver got involved. They reckoned the dairy farmers deserved better, and when they speak the nation tends to listen. So this week, the Government banged some heads together in an effort to avoid milkageddon -- yes, the farmers were threatening to pour their product down the drain. The seeds of a long-term deal were sown, but the farmers are still unhappy and nobody knows what's going to happen next.

Bill Sykes, our village blacksmith, always looks forward to bad news, but he perked up when he learned that groups of farmers had driven their tractors to protest outside nearby milk processing plants. 'We can win this war', he shouted across the pub on Friday night to a bemused collection of local folk. 'Yes, we can change', he yelled. 'Yes we can. Yes we can'. And who can argue with that? This is Simon Bates for CBS News in London.

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