Wow! There’s a controversial statement that’s going to annoy a few people.
So why say it?
A couple of years ago, when I announced the launch of the Free Range Dairy initiative, some people accused me of dividing the dairy industry – pointing out difference between farms that grazed their cows and farms that confined cows all year round. However, I consider that the UK dairy industry is already divided and becoming increasingly so. To the point that I now question whether, in some instances, milk production will become an industrial process rather than a way of farming.
If this is the case, at what point does dairy farming stop being farming in the true sense of the word?
For me (and this is only my personal opinion), a dairy farm might be defined like this:
- There are fields of grass all around the farm
- There are cows in the fields
- The majority of the food for the animals is grown on the farm
- The farm is part of the fabric of the surrounding countryside
- The farmer has direct contact with his cows and stock on a daily basis
So, when does milk production shift from farming to an industrial process?
These are some of the signs (and again this is only my personal opinion) that milk production has crossed the line form farming to industrial process:
- There are more buildings than fields
- Very few animals are seen in the fields
- Large quantities of feed are shipped into the farm
- Large quantities of waste (manure and slurry) are shipped out
- The facility looks at odds with its surroundings
- The operator relies upon computers and other technology to manage the herd
Perhaps you consider the above too simplistic an analysis of what farming is or refute the distinctions I have made. But, when we talk about the demise of dairy farms, the ongoing exodus of farmers from the industry, are we really talking about the loss of farms. By this I mean the replacement of traditional farms with modern day, industrial milk production units. In 1970 there were 100,000 dairy farms in the UK. Today there figures show that there are only around 15,000 dairy farms left. But, in reality, the number of true farms left might be even lower than this.
Is this relevant or important as long as we can grow the volume of milk we produce in the UK?
I believe it is, because whilst work is being done to highlight the value of milk, I see little being done to promote the value of our farms and, if this doesn’t change we will continue to see a fall in the true value of milk at the farm gate. We must achieve recognition for farms and farming if we are to secure a fair slice of the cake. Otherwise we are in danger of losing milk from farms and that raises a number of concerns about the sustainability of a dairy industry founded upon an industrial platform, including the quality of our milk, the life we afford our cows, the impact we have on the environment and the future of rural communities.
Free Range Dairy is all about promoting farming in the true sense of the word and restoring the value that dairy farmers so badly need. This is why I started this post with the claim “if it ain’t free range, it ain’t farming”. We need to establish what a farm is, what it does and what it offers the citizens of the UK. We need to distinguish the high quality milk we produce on farms from the plethora of increasingly processed substitutes for real food that fill supermarket aisles. I have no wish to divide the industry as I believe the vast majority of milk producers in the UK are still farmers. But, farmers must promote all that is good about farming if we are to avoid being sucked into a industrial supply chain that will rob us of all the value of our product.