I’ve been lucky, very lucky. I have lived in some beautiful parts of the English countryside, worked with some inspiring people and had the privilege of enjoying a close relationship with nature all of my life. There are few jobs that can give one the sense of connection to the world around us like dairy farming can – the grass beneath your feet, the daily interaction with livestock and the wildlife you live alongside. All of this has instilled in me a deep sense of pride and passion for the industry that sustains all human life on this planet and I guess that is how I came to be talking to Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty, at the end of Southend pier, on a blazing hot day last August.
Having milked cows and run dairy farms suffering unrelenting pressure to produce more for less, for 20 years, I grew tired of the treadmill that exhausted both man and beast. So I began to look at how we could shift the focus from volume to value in the dairy industry. I knew the answers were there, in the fields and farms, hidden beneath a thick layer of misleading brands and labels that kept farmers and consumers apart. So I set about promoting a better understanding of the landscape, the grass, the cows and the rural communities engaged in feeding the nation.
A Union Jack on the bottle might indicate milk is produced from within these shores, but it tells the purchaser little of the life the cows lead, the families that care for them, or the countryside they inhabit. That’s why I came up with the idea of Free Range Dairy, to offer consumers a chance to understand the real value in milk from traditional British dairy farms, where cows are seasonally grazed in fields. I surveyed almost 600 dairy farmers in 2011 and then began touring the country and talking to farmers, asking them how long they grazed their cows each year and consulting them on what a ‘free range’ dairy farming system might look like. Based on this, I decided to try and establish a commitment to grazing cows for 180 days a year, to define free range milk and registered the Pasture Promise logo as a trademark. Today that promise to give cows the freedom to roam in fields for 6 months of the year, is the foundation of the farming system we promote.
In 2014, I met Carol Lever, who was then working for an animal welfare organisation in London. Carol had no farming background, but was fuelled with a passion for winning a fair deal for cows and farmers and she knew a thing or two about campaigning too. So, together we established the Free Range Dairy Network as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in July 2014 and through collaboration with farmers, milk processors, wholesalers, chefs, academics and NGO’s, we are now delivering that farming system in a bottle to provide people with a more informed choice when they buy milk.
We have worked hard and, at times, it has been tough, so to get that call from Fresh One Productions in spring 2016 was a really proud moment – a sign that people were beginning to take note of our initiative and our aims. The programme researcher told me they wanted to include a feature on milk in the new series of Jamie & Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast and thought we had “the best milk story going right now”. So, I went to Yorkshire to film cows in fields with Jimmy Doherty on a Free Range Dairy farm, belonging to Stephen and Rachel Coates, on a glorious summer’s day. Jimmy is a great guy and is genuinely interested in food and farming and was very much at home on the farm with the Coates family. We all enjoyed the day’s filming, just talking about what we do.
A few weeks later, the Producer called to say they wanted to do more on the story and I was asked to join Jimmy and Jamie Oliver for filming in the famous café, on Southend pier. Sitting around a small table with Jamie and Jimmy, under the blaze of the Friday Night Feast studio lights and surrounded by technicians, I suddenly felt very much under the spotlight and I’m still not sure I managed to find the words to express how important all this is to me. As you will see on the programme, my face was brighter than my pink shirt! Four years after clenching a fistful of grass, in an attempt to symbolise my own commitment to grazing cows in fields, to find myself discussing my ideas and hopes for the future of British dairy farming, face to face with perhaps the world’s most famous food campaigner, has instilled memories that will stay with me for ever.
It is amazing how Jamie has brought so many people together to campaign for great tasting, healthy food for all. He is changing attitudes to food and the support he provides for small organisations and campaigns like ours, across the globe, is invaluable. I want to say a big “Thank you” to Jamie and Jimmy for giving us this unique opportunity to get our story out there. It has been a long journey for me personally, to the end of the pier and Free Range Dairy Network still has a lots to do, if we are to build lasting value in traditional British dairy farms and the cows that graze their pastures. But I hope Friday Night Feast will help us make big strides towards achieving our goals.