At the start of what is a really important year for Free Range Dairy, I want to take a few minutes to remind people of why I set up the initiative and what I hope it will achieve.
It seems to me that most of the things that are essential for our very existence we take granted – the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Most of us in the Western World suffer from the symptoms of overindulgence rather than the pain of thirst or hunger. These symptoms are readily identifiable in human bodies, in the form of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions of modern life. But, there are increasing symptoms of our care-free attitude to all we consume all around us.
In the same way that we toss away the packaging that cocoons almost everything we buy, or bin the irresistible surplus portions we couldn’t swallow, we discard the precious resources that are conscripted into producing our food – to such an extent that we are prepared to feast on animals that live a life that we, ourselves, would find wholly unacceptable. However, the culture of cheap food that has developed has not simply been driven by the demands of uncompassionate consumers. The key driver is the intense competition between food companies and retailers, fighting to make profits from the animals we keep and the crops we grow en route from farms to households.
Free Range Dairy was not borne out of a stand against mega dairies or supermarkets – I just wanted to reconnect the people of the UK with their food, because a greater understanding of the provenance and value of our food is good for consumers, farmers and, in this case, the cows that produce our milk.
The day we decided to enclose and domesticate cattle, sheep and pigs we changed their lives forever. But, there are still basic rights we can afford them – freedom being one of the most important. A dairy cow will naturally produce milk to feed her offspring and, if well fed, will provide a surplus that we can harvest. Technology and nutritional innovation has enabled us to raise milk yields to dizzy new heights. But, ultimately, there will be a cost associated with the increased demands placed upon the cow – her health and fertility may be compromised and her lifespan shortened – as she becomes further removed from a natural existence. I, like many, have grown tired of the relentless pursuit of more and more output to counter rising costs. There has to be another way.
A few decades ago most dairy cows had names – not fancy pedigree names on files stashed in a draw but names by which they were called every day. Now, most are known only by number. This might seem like sentimental nonsense to many but my point is that it illustrates the way in which food production has become all about numbers. Meanwhile, marketing men have cleverly skewed the meaning of quality and value. We have lost sight of the value of our cows living something akin to a natural existence. We have forgotten that quality food comes from the soils in our fields not through additives and processing. Many no longer value the role that farmers play, not only in feeding the nation, but in weaving together the fabric of rural communities and our countryside.
Free Range Dairy is not about creating a niche market for a select bunch of old fashioned dairy farmers, with rose tinted spectacles. It is about putting the dairy industry back in its rightful place in every household in the UK. We are not fighting for supermarket shelf space, we are fighting for understanding and value in the minds of everyone who consumes milk and dairy products.
Pasture-based dairy systems are not a new idea – they have served our country well for generations. They have not become outdated or grown inefficient. They are as much a part of the future as they are the past. But, if we are to preserve quality and value in milk from our farms we must win recognition for the way we farm. Free Range Dairy is all about achieving this. It’s not a complex process but it requires commitment form farmers everywhere. If you are a milk producer contemplating what 2013 will bring ask yourself “what will deliver a change in our fortunes this year?”
Will you be relying on the generosity of processors and retailers, the support of government, angry protest, or simply putting up with your lot? Well, how about you join us and start telling people what’s really good about your farm and your cows? Kick 2013 off with a really positive step – sign up to Free Range Dairy today and make a difference.