This is a story that is almost as rare as a free-range cow: a good news story about the British dairy industry.
This month, Jenni and Jerry Hobbs will swing open the gates to the yard of their modest farmhouse in Gloucestershire, shout a few words of encouragement and watch as their herd of brown Swiss, Friesians, Fleckviehs and the rest, big eyes blinking as they survey the expanse of grass before them, buck and cavort their way out to pasture.
These 200 cows will then spend at least the next six months grazing the 300 acres around Barhouse farm, in the village of Elmore, near Stroud, going inside only to be milked. As natural as it sounds, they are the exception in the milk production industry, where 20% of cattle never see the sky.
These are free-range cows – cows whose owners have pledged to graze them outdoors for at least 180 days a year. This is to produce what many of the small farmers who make up the backbone of Britain’s broken dairy industry hope might help them break the cycle of ever-lower prices and ever-bigger farms: free-range milk.
“I came to this because I was fed up with the lack of value given to milk,” says Neil Darwent, who set up Free Range Dairy in 2014. “We need a milk revolution. Most people think all cows live in fields. This is about change, about the way things are done. It’s about terroir. Provenance has been lost, the story of milk has been lost. Not all milk is the same and we need consumers to recognise that.”
Free Range Dairy’s most noticed innovation has been a piece of branding: the Pasture Promise label, guaranteeing that the milk comes from cows that have grazed outdoors for the minimum six months. This month Asda agreed to initially stock Free Range Dairy farmers milk in 109 of its stores.
“In mid-2014 milk prices started going down and it did not stop for two years,” says Jenni Hobbs as she warms milk for a mid-morning coffee in her kitchen. “We were hanging on by our fingernails. It’s taken a long time to come back. Now they’re saying it’s going to go down again, after just a few months of recovery. I’m just hoping this Asda thing will give us the boost we need. I’ve thrown everything into it.”
Carol Lever, Darwent’s partner in the Free Range Dairy group, remembers the Hobbs’s despondency a year ago. “Last year at turnout, Jenni and Jerry said, ‘If this doesn’t work out, this might be the last time we do this. We’ll just sell the farm and get out.’”
The modest recovery in milk prices over the last 12 months has seen the average farmgate price rise by just over 4p a litre to 27.13p by January this year, according to the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, an increase of 17.6%. Over the same period, supply has gone done by 2%, with 134 farms leaving the business, a decline of 1.4%, to bring the total number of dairy farms in England and Wales to 9,464, down from 13,000 a decade ago.
“The bottom line is that over a number of years the retailers have successfully thrashed the value out of retail milk,” says industry analyst Ian Potter. “Consumers spend more time studying bottled water than they do milk. It’s been made into a commodity. Now we’ve got different products with different attributes and assurance standards.”
Milk bearing the Pasture Promise label is backed up by NSF certification, a food standards label that will guarantee the cows have indeed been grazing outdoors for 180 days, that they are in yard for an hour before and after milking, that they graze within 400 metres of water and that no male calves have been euthanised, an industry practice that fuels the ire of anti-dairy campaigners.
Indeed, for the Go Vegan World group, which recently extended an eye-catching advertising campaign against the dairy industry in Ireland and the UK, no amount of free-range labelling can mask the injustice of dairy. “The concept of free range is a marketing ploy designed by a dying industry in an attempt to assuage the conscience of the public,” says the campaign’s Sandra Higgins.
While the dairy sector is under attack from outside the industry, the arrival of free-range milk has caused some to sense an attack from within, with the implication that free range is somehow better than conventional milk because of its morals as well as its taste.
“It’s good to see more differentiation in the milk aisles,” National Farmers Union dairy board chairman Michael Oakes said at the launch of another free-range milk campaign, Enjoy Milk, in January. “We would encourage any new brands to focus on positive, constructive messaging that promotes the benefits of the products, rather than using divisive tactics that knock one system to benefit another.”
While Enjoy Milk seems to be a work in progress, other free rangers have been making inroads, trying to disrupt the consolidating patterns of the dairy industry. In Sheffield, Our Cow Molly’s garish pink vans have become a common sight as the dairy delivers its free-range milk to the city’s doorsteps.
“We’ve been here since 1947 and now we’re the last dairy farm to bottle milk in Sheffield,” says the farm’s Eddie Andrew. “My grandad used to deliver the milk and ladle it into people’s teapots. Now we’ve got 85 milking cows on an open farm with an ice-cream parlour and we’re four miles from the city.
“The most important thing is for people to see the cows grazing. They come and sit in our car park and watch them while they eat their sandwiches. This is what our customers really value, and because they value it they will pay a little more for it. Provenance is the key. We don’t go outside Sheffield, we don’t need to. Milk in a big tanker with no provenance is the past.”
Our Cow Molly has cracked one sector that is seen as key to spreading the gospel of free-range milk: the milk-guzzling coffee shops.
“Coffee retailers all talk about their beans, and where they come from, but when it comes to milk, they couldn’t care less,” says Neil Brealey, of Cotteswold Dairy in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, which supplies milk bearing the Free Range Dairy label.
The big coffee shops’ ethical mission statements bear out his point; the Ethical Consumer guide, which ranks coffee shops on everything from sourcing to tax avoidance, doesn’t seem to consider where the milk comes from.
While advocates of free-range milk praise its taste, it has another quality conventionally seen as a disadvantage for a food product: seasonality. Because of the variations in the qualities of the grass, free-range milk will taste different between both regions and seasons.
“The British palate has been dumbed down,” says Darwent. “Milk is a seasonal product, that’s part of what we want to get back into. We want to celebrate the difference between Yorkshire summer milk and Gloucestershire summer milk.”
For Brealey, free range is “a fantastic opportunity to support traditional dairy farming because it is on a knife edge. We are extremely hopeful for free range and we want to be at the vanguard of it. I think there is a possibility that we could get to 10% of the milk supply being free range. But even if we get to 4% or 5%, it’s a huge market.”
Could it happen? Could the typical journey of the modern pint – a week-long trek from cow to fridge via tankers, processing plants, distribution hubs and supermarkets – be replaced by a bucolic idyll of farmers milking and bottling before delivering, all within 12 hours, as Our Cow Molly does?
Back in her farmyard, Hobbs looks at the array of buildings, some in a better state of repair than others. “This is us,” she says, “not big and fancy but doing the right thing. We all want a little patchwork-quilt England. Food production is crucial to that, but the right type of food production.”
She stands watching the calves lying together, lapping up the early spring sunshine. “They’re like mates. They’ll live here the rest of their lives, till they’re 16, 20 years old. My favourite is out there. She’s getting old, her bags are on the floor but she’s lush.”
A VOLATILE MARKET
Who’s to blame for the price of milk? The easiest culprit to identify is the supermarkets, whose pricing policies regularly generate protests. But many are tied into deals with the UK’s two dominant milk processors, Müller and Arla. However, all are powerless before the weather and supply and demand. With an early spring predicted, there could be a glut of fresh milk and an accompanying fall in price. Added to that, the role of commodity markets, slowing demand from China, problematic trade relations with Russia and the removal in 2015 of EU milk quotas all make milk a volatile commodity.