When I began talking about the concept of free range milk back in 2011, I was looking for a way to help people understand the role dairy farmers play in defining the quality of the milk we buy and to halt the loss of traditional grazing herds from the British countryside. I could see that widespread misconceptions about milk and the farms that produced it, meant consumers didn’t get to enjoy the true qualities of milk and farmers were not being recognised and rewarded for them. My work in managing dairy farms, made me acutely aware of how the farming systems that produced our milk were being moulded by the demands of the modern supply chain, leading farmers towards an increasingly industrialised model for milk production. The upshot is, we now have less than 9,500 dairy farms left in England & Wales and consumers are being denied the chance to enjoy milk from those traditional, seasonally grazed herds and a means to vote for them.
What many people don’t realise, is the fact that each and every dairy farm in Britain produces milk with unique qualities that are influenced by elements such as the soil type under the land, the breed of cow, what she is fed and the farming system adopted by the producer. These are the things that give milk from different farms its individual flavour and ‘terroir’ – things that should be enjoyed and celebrated, in recognition of the fact that not all milk is the same. But, unfortunately, the modern day supply chain homogenises milk in more ways than one. Consolidation in food retailing, manufacturing and processing has smothered the flavour of our milk, by pooling millions of litres, from thousands of farms, to render it bland ‘white stuff’. It is so frustrating to think that farmers up and down the country work so hard to produce a great product, only to see those who claim to add value, strip it of its identity and taste.
The time has come for farmers to reclaim the true value of their milk and that begins with ensuring it reaches the customer with as many of its unique qualities, as possible, still intact. The work of Free Range Dairy Network CIC is enabling farmers to win recognition for a defined farming system, built on a clear commitment to keeping cows in fields. Consistent feedback at events we have attended, like Countryfile Live and the Manchester Coffee Festival, highlights the fact that people can really taste the difference in free range milk. We are rewarded with comments like these again and again:
“It’s really sweet”
“It tastes like proper milk”
“It’s really creamy”
The farming, the primary production, is the one thing farmers still own and, as I have explained it can deliver tangible quality and value. But, the over simplistic division of milk into organic and conventional labels, ignores the vast array of farms that sit in the latter category. There is no comparison between a farm running 100 cows that each produce 6,000 litres of milk a year from a traditional grazing system and an operation where 1,000 cows are housed indoors all year round with each yielding over 10,000 litres of milk.
Speaking to Charlotte Smith, on BBC Farming Today This Week, Duncan Sinclair, Head of Agriculture at Waitrose, explained how retailers are often challenged that they don’t do enough to promote the good work that the farmers do within their supply chains. But he said that this was something that Waitrose took to another level in their spring marketing campaign – particularly with their milk and he felt it was important to demonstrate how retailers can differentiate their product in the market place. Philip Clarke, Executive Editor for News and Business with Farmers Weekly, explained that there are opportunities for farmers to get into a supermarket with a regional brand or to market direct to local customers. But he added that 89% of producers don’t have those opportunities and their product is sold through a middleman, which means they can’t get close to the end consumer. But I believe we can change that and we don’t need retailers to differentiate milk – we can do it at the farm gate, by labelling the production system behind it.
Speaking on the same Farming Today programme at the weekend, Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association, said that she believes there needs to be a more honest system of production labelling. She felt that there is still a lot of misleading marketing, with images of animals in fields leading people to assume it’s free range when it’s not and would like to see ‘standardisation’ of standards. This has happened in eggs and a lot of people have traded up to free range. Mrs Browning added that this could happen in other areas, if we had that consistent and honest approach on our labels. I am often told that consumers don’t want more labels on milk, as they are already confused. But, having encountered resistance to free range milk amongst major retailers, due to fears over questioning about the provenance of their standard milk offer, I think objections to system of production labelling tell a different story.
It is absolutely crazy that people are denied the chance to enjoy great tasting milk, simply because it doesn’t fit with the machinations of the supply chain. Big supermarkets killed off independent retailers in the high street and small dairies, bakeries and abattoirs were lost with them. But, now the giants of food retailing are setting up their own convenience stores in the high street, to take that trade for themselves. It is not hard to see how, having stifled the availability of great tasting, local food, they will endeavour to reinstate it under their own labels and standards. We must act now, to secure tenure of great tasting milk and ensure that it is consumers, farmers and cows who benefit, not the middlemen. Free Range Dairy Network has taken the lead in establishing defined producer standards, to give everyone a clear assurance that the milk they buy truly comes from cows that enjoy the freedom to graze in fields and we are working to build integrity and trust in the Pasture Promise logo. Please help us to make a difference in dairy. Make the Pasture Promise now so that you can taste the difference and enjoy all that free range milk has to offer.