When European Union quotas restricting milk production were introduced virtually overnight, there was no county that experienced the appalling financial and personal backlash greater than Pembrokeshire. In the second of a series of articles marking the 100th anniversary of the National Farmers’ Union in Pembrokeshire, Debbie James looks at the role the NFU played in supporting the dairy industry through that desperate time.

In the 12 months immediately after the European Union imposed quotas limiting the volume of milk farms could produce, there were tragic consequences for farming families in Pembrokeshire.

In that year alone, the NFU team in Pembrokeshire supported families through 22 receiverships, two bankruptcies, two suicides and hundreds of others whose businesses were threatened by these new regulations. These were desperate times.

Pembrokeshire was badly hit because, not only did the county have a high concentration of dairy farmers, but farmers were heavily borrowed because they had been encouraged to expand.

The government had urged expansion to redress a position of under-supply – the UK was only around 75% self-sufficient in milk at that time.

Grants were available to help pay in part for new infrastructure but farmers in other regions of the UK either ignored that encouragement or were quicker to ramp up production than those in Pembrokeshire; these were the major reasons why the country’s milk producers were so badly hit when quotas were introduced in 1984.

Not only that but the EU declared 1983 as the base year – farms would in future be restricted to only producing their output from that year; furthermore, that base figure would be heavily reduced further.

Patrick Edgington, at that time county secretary of the Pembrokeshire NFU, said farmers in Pembrokeshire had invested heavily to increase supply – but production in 1983 was much lower than the predicted volumes farmers had budgeted their loans against, because it would take time for the new or increased milking herds to reach optimum economic production.

“A lot of new buildings were constructed for housing, farmers bought more land and stock and new milking parlours were installed. Everyone was gearing up to produce more milk but they were nowhere near full output in 1983. For that reason, farmers in Pembrokeshire were much more exposed than others.’’

An appeals system was introduced, whereby farmers could argue their case for more quota. “The NFU supported farmers through hundreds and hundreds of these appeals,’’ Mr Edgington recalled.

“The group secretaries, the office holders, the county chairman, myself and others were involved with those appeals and related issues seven days a week.’’

The NFU county chairman at that time was Sir Eric Howells. “Eric was able to open additional doors through his political connections and get things done, so it was really lucky that he happened to be county chairman at that time.’’

That was also true also of his successor, Graham Perkins, who represented members at tribunals and in court, and William George, who followed as county chairman and established a statistical information data base for bank negotiations, says Mr Edgington.

“These three were marvellous during this difficult time, together with many other unsung heroes who could be added to the list.

“They were down to earth and sensible and supported farmers at quota appeals tribunals and elsewhere. There are many families in Pembrokeshire who are so indebted to those people and others at the NFU.’’

The union set up meetings between farmers and bankers at the very highest level, to agree a way forward that would not involve the loss of the farm.

The NFU also supported families on a personal level.

“There was a huge human aspect to the whole situation, farmers not only faced the prospect of losing their businesses but their family home too,’’ said Mr Edgington.

“Farmers were desperate so we created a support network by putting them in touch with others in a similar situation.

“The NFU fought for these people. It was the most amazing team of people doing it. I can’t tell you how much I admired the county chairmen, office holders, group secretaries and others for what they did.’’

At the time of their introduction, milk quotas caused untold misery for the Pembrokeshire dairy industry but, thanks to the NFU and other organisations who supported farmers throughout, many businesses survived what is considered one of the most difficult periods in the county’s farming history.