n 2001 my family left the dairy industry for good. It had been a long, drawn out decline, brought about by struggling milk prices, unsustainable labour costs and the fluctuant nature of the pedigree sales part of the business. We continued in farming, but the business is now unrecognisable compared with when there were cows in the yard.
All farm businesses face their own peculiar challenges and most are occasionally demonised in the press, whether that is for applying supposedly carcinogenic glyphosate on arable fields or being told they are irresponsible destroyers of wildlife for cutting hedges in August.
Of any sector of the farming industry, dairy farmers seem to be particularly downtrodden at the moment, with views increasingly polarised when it comes to the virtues of milk. What used to be seen as a valuable health product has in the past few years regularly been available at a price cheaper than bottled water, and with 46% of 16 to 24-year-olds saying they are allergic to cow’s milk. I therefore write this article not as a dairy farmer defending my own industry, but as someone with a deep concern for how dairy farming is being portrayed.
Despite what you might read, the vast majority of dairy farm businesses in the UK produce a high-quality product while ensuring their cows live healthy and happy lives. From micro-dairies with a few head of cattle to zero-grazing herds of over 1,000 cows, all dairy businesses have similar aims: they want to produce a quality product for consumers; they want to maintain good animal welfare standards and herd health to ensure the cows are happy, therefore producing more milk; and they want to make sufficient profit to keep rural people employed and stay in business the following year.
Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, and occasionally there are examples of poor practice, which let the rest of the farming community down. However, we need to shift the narrative so that we focus more on those farmers (the vast majority) who are producing milk safely and with high standards of animal welfare and less on the doom and gloom message of the fictional dairy monster espoused by some in the vegan lobby.
There are many examples of farmers across the UK taking things into their own hands to tell people what they are doing and why. Leaf’s Open Farm Sunday, which takes place each June, gives people the opportunity to visit farmers and learn about food production first hand. Further, hundreds of farmers are active on social media with various tweeting tractor drivers, shepherds and herdsmen forming their own online communities and posting about everyday life on their farms. There are also farming blogs, and even a few podcasts, profiling agricultural life.
If you want the true picture (or should I say pictures) of dairy farming, take a look at these. The trouble is that these messages only reach a small minority of consumers.
Too few people have direct experience of the way milk is produced, and even fewer regularly talk to farmers – so it’s no surprise that negative views are able to flourish. Distance creates distrust, which generates angst. It is good and healthy to question how and why certain things are done, but when forming opinions they should be based on objective appraisals of the issue, rather than how it might seem, or the rare instances of bad practice. Exposés may make for strong news items, but they don’t reflect the wider industry.
In recent years, milk prices have regularly appeared in the news. Financial worries are never far from a dairy farmer’s mind. As a farmer of any commodity you have very little to no control over the price you are paid for your product. The best you can do is increase efficiency by reducing inputs or invest in new equipment and technology to increase unit yields.
Some dairy farmers have chosen to sell direct, produce “raw” unpasteurised milk, or process their milk into cheese or ice cream. However, the vast majority sell their milk through one of the cooperatives, taking the marketing out of their hands, leaving them to concentrate on production, hoping prices will rise.
There are now fewer than 9,500 dairy farms in the UK compared with 13,000 10 years ago, and it has been predicted there will be fewer than 5,000 by 2025. Low milk prices threaten the livelihoods of dairy farming families and, with it, the rural communities of which they are apart. Each dairy farm that goes out of business makes life in another community a little poorer – economically, socially and culturally.
We have become addicted to cheap food and too many in society take our farmers for granted. The government rhetoric surrounding Brexit – that we can import cheap food from abroad – is incompatible with supporting farmers at home who work tirelessly to produce food to the highest standards. After all, we are subject to far more legislation than producers abroad – while also providing various environmental benefits.
“Farmer bashing” has become an acceptable pastime. Instead, I urge everyone to explore the various farming blogs out there to read from farmers themselves about what they are doing. By all means challenge them, but be prepared to take part in a rational debate about food production. Trust me, other than the action of farming itself, farmers like nothing more than to talk about their work; they would just like to be engaged in the conversation before they are demonised.