Milked Dry

7th October 2011

Regular listeners to Radio 4’s The Archers – ‘an everyday story of country folk’ – will know that there are plans afoot for an intensive ‘mega-dairy’ in the middle of the Home Farm Estate. As usual, the storyline reflects agricultural real life, in which the small scale local farmer is coming under increasing threat from high-tech super units.

Heather Harris investigates.

The last farm in our Buckinghamshire village is facing closure. Johns Lane Farm, in Ashley Green near Berkhamsted, has been in Brenda and Kevin Fancourt’s family since 1937 but is now struggling to keep up with rising costs. “Working dairy farming,” they say, “is now a labour of love rather than a going concern.”

Their day starts at 5am and they’re never in bed before 11pm. Each milking session takes four hours and there are hens to look after, vegetables to grow and home made cakes to bake for the on-site shop, which, packed as it is with hay, logs and pet food plus home-made produce, is now one of their main ways of making money.

“The wonderful fresh eggs are much cheaper than the supermarkets,” says one loyal – and regular – customer, “and the cakes and biscuits get five stars from my family. If all of us passed by just a few more times then we may yet get to save our farm.”

Johns Lane Farm is not alone in its plight. Individual dairy farms are closing at the rate of one a day due to endless bureaucracy on the one hand, and rising fuel and input costs on the other.

Brenda’s accounts show that last year, they paid £88 a ton for the 13 tons of feed barley they need each month. “This year it’s already £175 a ton, while diesel has gone up 7p in six weeks and the tractor uses up 2500 litres a month.”
Unlike other industries, dairy farmers are not allowed to set their own prices, but are told what they will receive for their milk. They’ve just had an increase this year, but that only takes it to the 1980 price.

The supermarkets don’t help. About 3,000 of Britain’s 13,500 dairy farmers have special deals with chains such as Tesco and Sainsbury's, relationships that were initially thought to be good news for farmers. The cost of production, now at 27.5p per litre, though, is 3p higher than the average farm-gate price of 24.5p, which means, as Farmers’ Union leader Peter Kendall explains, that “the majority of dairy farmers are losing money on every litre of milk they produce.”

In 1995 there were 35,741 dairy farms in the UK. Latest statistics show that this has now fallen to just 15,716.

The UK Director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), Suzy Morris, spells it out. “Our small-scale, predominantly pasture-based dairy farmers – under whose stewardship Britain’s dairy cows have grazed for generations – are sliding out of business at an accelerating rate.”

So what’s the answer? The UK already imports about 33% of the butter, 50% of the cheese and 40% of the yoghurt we eat, and there’s a real risk that in the future the milk for our cornflakes will arrive via international airline not local udder.

One idea put forward by an increasing number of farming industry leaders and economists is ‘get big or get out’ which identifies American-style ‘mega-dairies’ filled with battery cows as the only way forward.
In 2010, Lincolnshire was the proposed site for the Nocton mega-dairy: an 8,100 cow intensive farm which would have been the largest in Western Europe. This gigantic factory threatened to flood the market with millions of litres of cheap, industrially produced milk.

The WSPA quickly realised that this was a tipping point for Britain’s farmers. Once one mega-dairy started operating, others would follow.

Katherine Mansell, from the charity’s press office, explains, “These gigantic ‘concentrated feeding operations’ confine cows in their thousands in concrete sheds, and threatened to put hundreds of rural farmers out of business…”
In September 2010 WSPA launched the Not In My Cuppa Campaign. Over 30,000 people quickly signed up. WSPA also convinced 200 MPS, peers, Ministers and Shadow Ministers to back an Early Day Motion ‘opposing the establishment of intensive dairy units which would take dairy farming in the wrong direction’.

A survey by the campaign team found that 61% of British consumers would never knowingly buy ‘factory milk from battery cows’, in much the same way as we’ll no longer buy eggs from battery hens.

By February this year, as Stephen Fry tweeted all his followers to say ‘Not In My Cuppa’, Nocton Dairies withdrew their plans.

“But this was merely a milestone, not a victory,” says Suzy Morris, “since the future of people like Brenda and Kevin and other dairy farmers still hung in the balance.”

The charity realised that their argument was predominantly based on emotions rather than economics, and that in order to convince those with power they would have to dispute the financial benefit of the mega diaries.
Following an investigative trip to the US, meeting with farming academics and dairy experts, the WSPA team produced their report: ‘Weighing up the Economics of Dairy Farms’.

It was launched this month by Dragon’s Den investor, Deborah Meaden, who said that the business case for mega-dairies is based on “high risk economic guesswork”, and adding that it’s the sort of investment proposal that would never get her backing.

“The British dairy industry is in crisis. This report clearly contests the belief that ‘bigger is better’. Not only is it wrong for farmers, the countryside, consumer and for cows, but it is based on unsustainable principles.”
To put it simply – if times are good mega-dairies could be more profitable, but in bad times they can easily go bust and farmers could see a £50,000 profit nosedive into a £50,000 loss in a single year. US data shows that the small scale pasture-based farms actually weathered the recent recession better.

The report goes: ‘It is possible to turn a profit from a farm that allows robust, healthy cows out on to grass. It is possible to make money from cows that live longer because they have less pressure on them to keep up with mega-dairy demand. It is a reality that can happen without all the noise, pollution, devastation to rural communities, and environmental and human health impacts that are linked to industrial dairies.’

Asked to comment on this view, Dr Peter Thorne from DairyCo, an industry body that deals entirely with evidence and is critical of the rather emotive approach of the WSPA, tells me, “Results from our own studies also show that increasing size is just one option. We have smaller farms in our data that are extremely efficient and are making money. It is likely that there will continue to be a wide range of dairy farm types and sizes in the future…”
…but only if the UK consumer supports their home industry, even if it does mean paying more for their pinta. As the spokesman for Mission Milk, the joint initiative between the National Farmers Union and the Women’s Institute, recently stated, “Consumers have a real stake in the vibrancy of the British Dairy industry. We will be calling on retailers, processors, consumers and the Government to play their part in ensuring there is a long-term future for British milk. We believe that there is still a huge strength of feeling to evoke change today.”

For the sake of Brenda and Kevin, and all the other struggling farmers, let’s hope so. If we let the dairy industry simply disappear, we will never get it back – and it will be no good crying over spilt milk…

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