Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Things have been a little quiet round here lately, which is partly because I'm still trying to work out this work/life/blog balance, and mostly because I've been working hard on a piece that is close to my heart; the state of the British dairy industry, and milk prices. 


How to make a milion in Farming?
Start with two million and work hard.

My family have been farming in Somerset for as long as anyone can remember; three out of four of my great grandfathers were dairy farmers here (the fourth was a funeral director..), and both my grandfathers and father followed in their footsteps.

Grandpa, 1976

Grandma and Jester, 1982

Sadly though, the British dairy industry is currently under threat from painfully low milk prices, which are forcing families to abandon a way of life that has been practised in this country for hundreds of years. 

My own family came to Bath just over sixty years ago when my grandfather took on the farm with his father and brother.

Grandpa and his prize Ayrshire cows, 1978

My grandfather is now eighty one, and still farms six days a week alongside my father, my fathers cousin, and my great uncle.

My Father and his sisters were all born and bought up here, as were my sisters and I.

The farm played such a huge part of my childhood, and the cows played such a huge part of the farm; they had to be milked twice a day, at 5am, and 3pm. The school bus often got waylaid in the lanes behind long processions of cows making their way to the parlour, and in the summer holidays we would be sent out into the fields to help round them up.

The empty parlour 

Sadly though, in 2010, we were forced to admit defeat. Dairy farming was no longer a viable option for us, and our beloved heard of two hundred and fifty cows were sold off at market and scattered across the county.

Our story, whilst deeply personal to us, is in no way uncommon; since 2002 the number of farmers working in the UK has halved, to less than 10,000. As recently as this month, three of the UK's largest dairies announced further price cuts, which will undoubtedly force other families just like mine to abandon their farms in search of something better. 1, 2, 3

And things are only set to get worse; this spring the quotas restricting the amount of milk allowed to be produced by European farmers is set to be lifted, further flooding an already saturated market (milk production increased globally this year, but the market shrunk, with Russia closing her boarders to foreign imports, and demand for milk falling in China).

On top of that, milk is tightly wrapped up in our demands for cheaper food, and the Supermarket price wars; supermarkets use milk as what's called a 'loss leader'. A product is sold cheaply (sometimes at a loss to the company) in order to entice customers into the store, where they will likely spend enough on other products so that ultimately a profit will still be generated.

And on top of  that the processors and retailers have increased their profit margins dramatically over the last few year's  (up from 2.3 pence per litre to as high as 26 pence). So whilst the prices in the store are going down, the processors and retailers are earning more. And sadly for the farmers, the cost of production (fuel costs, fertiliser costs. etc) continues to rise.

I wish I could say there is an obvious solution to this problem; there are petitions you can sign, and many articles suggest boycotting stores like Morrisons and Aldi, in favour of 'responsible' supermarkets such as Sainsburys, Waitrose and M&S. But not only is that not always practical  (not everyone can afford to do their weekly shop in Waitrose!), but these businesses are not always as virtuous as they claim; yes, they have a good relationship with their suppliers, and pay prices which reflect the fluctuating cost of production, but even these prices leave little in terms of security in case anything does go wrong. And its unlikely that a collective of just 300 farms can produce the amount of milk bought daily in this country. The rest of the milk has to be supplied from somewhere, and these supermarkets are under no obligation to pay those producers a fair price.*

Essentially what is needed is a fundamental shift in our understanding of food, and how it is produced, and an acceptance that to produce food ethically simply costs more than it does to mass produce food on mega battery farms (which are not only ugly, but potentially also environmentally damaging).

Happily, it does seem as though things are looking up, but sadly it may be too late for many producers.

A scene from days gone by

Thankfully for my family we got out in time, and were able to reinvest the money from the sale of the heard into diversifying the farm; our yards are now full of the cutest Angus calves you ever did see, and in the summer we harvest more crops every year.

Sadly others may not be so fortunate.

Much Love,

P.s These are worth a read, if you're at all interested: Metro, Country Living

*For the best prices (74pence per litre, accurate 2012), check out Abel & Coel, whose Guernsey milk is produced in Wiltshire by Nick and Christine Gosling.

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