The sight of 1,700 cows on one farm, as part of a feature on milk and dairy farming systems that I took part in, on last week’s BBC Countryfile caused an unprecedented reaction. Social media was alive with comment and debate, much of it expressing shock and horror at the scale of a farming operation producing a household staple like milk.
The sudden realisation that not all cows live in fields and the threats to quit drinking milk that ensued on Sunday evening, highlight what a huge void the disconnect between farmers and consumers has become. In an ever more convoluted grocery supply chain that seeks to maximise profit from food between farm and fridge, the messages received by those who buy milk and dairy are carefully constructed to create a perception of small family farms, where small herds of lazy cows roam freely in lush green pastures. ‘British’ labels on food, accompanied by a Union Jack, are sometimes used to provide a liberal coat of red, white and blue washing to products stripped of their provenance, homogenised and reconstructed. Then one day, a newspaper or television programme suddenly reveals that those reassuring messages on the packaging have masked an unpalatable truth behind industrial food production and everyone chokes.
A part of me wants to ask people “What did you expect when the supermarkets are offering you such cheap food?” But, that wouldn’t be helpful and I don’t believe it’s the consumer’s fault – other than perhaps the fact we are always too busy to stop and ask the right questions before we put things in our baskets. When it comes to milk, busy people lured in by irresistibly low prices, are subtly reassured by images of cows in fields that adorn the dairy aisles. But, it is time we stopped food companies and retailers from abusing British milk and deceiving customers and allowed farmers the chance to win recognition for the value they deliver at the farm gate. The Free Range Dairy Network CIC works to reconnect farmers and consumers, by labelling the farming system that delivers their milk and give people the chance to understand something about the life that dairy cows are afforded on farms. The Pasture Promise label provides a simple assurance that cows enjoy the freedom to graze in fields for at least six months of the year.
For too long there has been an over simplistic division of the milk market into ‘Organic’ and ‘Conventional’. Whilst organic production is a clearly defined farming system with a set of standards against which farmers are measured, conventional milk production covers a vast array of different systems, from farms running 1,000 cows housed indoors all year round to traditional, seasonally grazed herds with less than 100 cows. Today it is true to say that these small dairy farms are much closer to their organic cousins than large scale conventional producers. Farmers who run simple, low cost milk production systems are reducing reliance on artificial fertilisers and the adoption of a more extensive regime means there is often little need for antibiotics. Meanwhile, whilst organic standards state that dairy cows must have access to fields when weather and ground conditions permit, there is big range in the number of days organic cows are actually grazed. In addition, recent research has highlighted that milk from non-organic herds, where high levels of grass and forage are fed, is just as healthy as that from organic farms. Yet, despite their similarities, organic farmers currently enjoy a milk price of over 35 pence a litre, whilst most of the so called conventional producers, who graze cows in fields, currently receive something between 15 and 20 pence.
Free Range Dairy is about much more than simply inserting a middle tier in the marketplace for milk. For too long, dairy farmers have been offered little alternative to the relentless pursuit of higher and higher milk yields, in an attempt to dilute costs, driven by a supply chain that pools billions of litres of milk to render it a white water commodity. This has resulted in a mass exodus of producers from the industry as they are left with little choice other than to get bigger or get out. So, yes, the Free Range Dairy Network CIC is here to unashamedly promote and support farmers, as well as keeping cows in fields and ensuring people can make a more informed choice. But, furthermore, if we do not allow consumers to identify and understand the farming system that delivers their milk, the trend towards industrial production of commodity white water will continue, until such time there is no choice. It is essential we highlight the real value in British milk and dairy farming before it is confined to a regime of ‘factory farming’.
Freedom is a simple value that most of us hold dear and which many have fought for and, as someone who has milked and managed cows for over 30 years, I believe that freedom to graze in spring and summer is a fundamental expression of natural behaviour for them. I accept that grazing cows does not automatically elevate them to a higher plane of welfare – cows in fields still get lame and suffer other ailments if not well managed. However, Free Range Dairy seeks to promote a farming system that focusses on value rather than volume, reducing the pressure on cows to perform. We have to look beyond the colour of the bottle top to understand the true value of its contents. Healthy milk is not whole milk or semi-skimmed milk, it is milk that comes from cows fed a diet largely comprised of forage, farms where cows enjoy something akin to a natural existence, land that is rich in biodiversity, rural communities that are vibrant and producers who are not worrying about how they are going to pay their bills. Industry bodies and leaders have consummately failed to deliver anything other than warm words and vision statements. Time is running out to save this sustainable source of nutritious milk and dairy. It is time for change and we need nothing less than a revolution to put things right.
I have been accused of being “divisive” by some in the industry (often by those with a vested interest in the promotion of a dairy farming system that demands high levels of inputs, technology and advice), for stating that not all milk is the same. But, the truth is, the way in which cows are managed on farms is what really defines the quality of our milk. Today, value is added to milk in the processing and packaging, in what is added or taken away. If farmers want to capture the value in their milk at the farm gate, they must instil that value before it leaves the farm. It is time to do the unthinkable and start marketing British dairy farming and that begins with the industry accepting that we cannot simply promote the white stuff. We need to shake the stigma that prevents innovators from breaking ranks and finding a way to add value for fear of being accused of doing others down. Free Range Dairy is not looking to take the moral high ground, but there isn’t a one-fits-all solution for British dairy farming and producers are currently forced to compete one another out of business in a race to bottom. Wouldn’t it be better to spend time and energy fighting to get to the top instead? However you farm, you should be proud enough and comfortable enough to be open and honest with the people who buy your milk. Hiding behind a perception is not acceptable.
Pointing out that not all cows go outside is not a cheap shot at farmers who keep cows indoors all year round, it is a simple statement of fact and, remember, it is a lack of facts that have caused the kind of outrage that followed the Countryfile programme last weekend. It is foolhardy to assume consumers know nothing or point to their lack of understanding. People understand their own values and feelings and they are not for us to judge. It is time to focus on delivering what people want, rather than trying to convince them that what they are force fed is good for them. Free Range Dairy is not here to condemn farmers who keep cows indoors all year round. We believe there are times when cows are better off inside – in winter and at times of extreme weather during the grazing season. But, as I explained earlier, freedom is a value we all share and intensive livestock production is understandably unpalatable for educated consumers. I hope that the Pasture Promise label will come to represent more than a commitment to grazing cows in fields for six months of the year. I hope it will ultimately symbolise a change in attitudes to British milk both on and towards the farms that produce it. An attitude founded on understanding and trust that reflects the true value of the cows in our fields.