Dairy Farmers Protest Reform

They will suffer but consumer prices won't change, they charge.

Hundreds of dairy farmers took to the streets yesterday to protest last week's recommendations by the Kedmi Committee on reforming the dairy industry.

The committee, headed by Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry Director General Sharon Kedmi, recommended lowering the price farmers would get for their milk and that more imports of dairy products. The farmers say these recommendations run counter to a law enacted just this past March that enshrines the farmers' rights.

Dairy Protest - Michal Fattal - 26072011
Michal Fattal

The farmers braved the heat to launch demonstrations at three locations around the country: the government offices opposite the Azrieli Center on Tel Aviv's Kaplan Street, the Sa'ad junction in the south and the Mahanayim junction in the north.

The Tel Aviv protesters were joined by Itzik Alrov, a leader of the recent campaign to boycott cottage cheese due to its high price. It was this campaign that prompted the Kedmi Committee's establishment.

The dairy farmers say lowering the target price for milk and opening the market to more dairy imports will not lower the price paid by the consumer; it will only increase the profits earned by the major dairies and the supermarket chains.

"We want to apply pressure on the government to lower consumer prices," Alrov said, "but the decrease can't be achieved on the backs of the dairy farmers."

"We are not the problem," said the CEO of the Israel Cattle Breeders Association, Yaakov Bachar. "We are the solution. Use us to lower consumer prices.

"In Europe, dairy farmers are subsidized," he added. "Here there is no subsidy. They just ask us to become more efficient. In this way, you are selling the country to the big-money families. We won't agree to be the victim."

"The government is carrying out targeted killings against us," charged Arnon Oshri, a dairy farmer from Kfar Vitkin. "We are the weak link in the chain.

"If the government-controlled price drops, entire communities will be wiped out, those same communities that survived Qassam and Katyusha rockets [from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon]," he said. "They would not be able to withstand the tiny profit margins they would be left with. They are trying to pin the blame on us, when we are the only ones working for price controls [on dairy products]."

The demonstrating farmers said their profit margin is currently only 10 to 20 agorot per liter of milk. One protester, Zvika Brandes, said he sells his daily milk output for NIS 5,000, leaving him a profit of just NIS 250 -before taxes.

Bachar, of the cattle breeders' group, said there is no connection between the price the farmers get, which is set by the government, and the price the consumer pays; the latter is determined by the mark-up added by the dairies and the retail stores. "Since the dairies and retail chains are in the hands of the wealthy, the prime minister is afraid to take them on," he charged.

The government also sets quotas for each farmer's production.

Imports, Bachar continued, already represent 20% of the cheese sold in Israel. But he questioned whether that has driven prices lower.

The demonstration in the north was attended by the heads of the Upper Galilee and Mevo'ot Hahermon regional councils, while the head of the Eshkol Regional Council joined the demonstration in the south.

In a related development, dairy farmers in the Golan Heights sent a letter to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss yesterday alleging that the Kedmi Committee's conclusions do not reflect the stance of the panel members themselves. They are also contrary to the Agriculture Ministry's position, the letter said.