They wanted to talk about the situation in the industry following the closure of Ramsey Bakery, which has meant that Laxey Glen Mills is no longer contracting them to grow milling wheat.
With the mill losing its biggest customer – Ramsey Bakery took around 80% of the flour they produce – the wheat stocks the mill already had, as of last August, were estimated to be enough to last for two years.
David Brew said: ‘For me, there’s two issues: one is long-term food security: whether bread is an essential commodity that should be produced in the island, and we shouldn’t rely on imports, and that’s something that government has almost rejected.
‘That’s a fundamental issue, so if that was accepted by government, then a lot of our problems going forward would disappear.
‘But then there is also this immediate problem that we’ve got that’s been caused by the closure of Ramsey Bakery and Laxey Glen Mills’ inability to communicate and find a solution with growers.
‘And I have to be very critical of the mill in that respect because I think a solution could have been found and I think government have to be brought into that as well.
‘Whether or not that’s still possible, or whether we’re just left on our own, I don’t know because at the moment that’s how it feels to me, that we’ve basically just been abandoned.’
David was contracted to grow around 130 acres of milling wheat for the mill. Last autumn, he planted only eight acres.
Planting more wheat and exporting it would have been an option, of course, but this is not without its drawbacks. ‘A massive gamble’ is how David describes it.
Aside from exponential rise in the cost of fertiliser which has cut profit margins, the markets in the UK have been volatile. Last August the price for wheat was around £340 a tonne and now it’s down to £300. And, to get the wheat there, the shipping costs are £50 a tonne.
Ean Parsons, president of the Manx NFU, said: ‘Government has the ability, with owning the Steam Packet, to facilitate the route to those export markets which also brings money back into the local economy.
‘There would be a viable market there if it wasn’t for the cost of accessing that market.
‘A lot of the Scottish islands have what they call “road haulage equivalency” so they’re not penalised compared to their mainland competitors.’
Will McMillin said: ‘I suppose from industry point of view, help with the shipping costs to export markets would help everybody, all sectors, in the short term.’
When he says ‘in the short term’ what he means is the importance of supporting farmers with the knowledge and experience to grow premium milling wheat so that these skills are not lost.
David explained: ‘The knowledge that has been obtained in successfully growing milling wheat on the island has been gained over probably about 30-odd years and the growers that were contracted to Laxey Glen Mills have become very professional at it, and very proficient at it, and very good at it and were probably producing some of the best quality milling wheat in the UK.’
Ean agreed, saying: ‘If they stop wheat production you’re not going to be able to just switch it back on again.
‘The government should have been looking to facilitate the continuation of wheat production in the hope that another bakery could start up because, if you lose it, there’s not an option for another bakery to start up with local wheat
Which brings us back to the question of food security.
How important is it to have a ready supply of bread, freshly baked on the island the same day it hits the shops, made from wheat grown on the island and flour milled here?
It has long been accepted that Laxey Glen Mills is in a building that is expensive to maintain and that it needs an investment in new equipment. A report on the future of the mill in 2021 envisaged a new, smaller and more efficient mill, purpose built, with more modern machinery and possibly sited in Jurby, with a plot of land alongside it where a bakery might have been built. The closure of Ramsey Bakery delayed any further action on the report and, having considered the report in light of this, DEFA is due to announce its policy position regarding the future of the mill in the next few months.
It is believed to be unlikely, however, that the construction of a new mill will go ahead. David said the original plan ‘would have ticked all the boxes with regard to food security’.
He believes that if nothing is done the viability of the mill will be seriously questioned.
He said: ‘Historically the mill has always made a loss, but a small one [it was £19,000 for 2020-2021] and those accounts had to be presented to Tynwald and approved and it never really made the radar of politicians at all but I think their next set of accounts will be pretty shocking because I think that the loss that they will be making will be pretty substantial.’
The effects of all this will impact on other areas too.
Less wheat being grown on the island is likely have an effect on livestock producers and therefore prices.
Farmers who keep cattle indoors through the winter use straw to bed them down and less wheat being harvested also means less straw so they will have to import it at a higher cost.
Another thing to consider is the impact on the environment caused by exporting wheat to make bread which we might then buy in one of the island’s supermarkets.
Will pointed out how little sense it makes from a carbon and food miles point of view, ‘growing wheat in the Isle of Man and shipping it to Yorkshire, baking it in Yorkshire, and then shipping it back to the Isle of Man as loaves’.
An alternative export idea which Ean believes would work is for the mill to export Manx flour.
He said: ‘Ultimately there’s a real opportunity for the export of a premium flour, because flour is a lot less bulky to export than wheat itself.
‘It’s higher value and smaller volume. With a viable, efficient mill there’s a great market potential.’
He also thinks that, when it comes to food security, the government should be leading by example.
He said: ‘Every day the Government is the biggest feeder of people on the island, between schools, hospitals, and the prison and, apart from the Creamery products, they use zero Manx produce.’
David concluded: ‘The disappointing thing from my point of view is, I’ve been supplying Laxey Glen Mills for 35 years and as a producer, and as the union, we’ve always had a very good relationship with Laxey Glen Mills. We used to have monthly meetings with the directors and managers and with Ramsey Bakery as well.
‘It always used to be considered to be a partnership between all the parties.’