View from Steepton Bill

Below we have some words from Tess Evans, a smallholder and Steepton Bill Farm Shop co-owner who reflects on the present situation in dairy farming. This was originally published in the Milton Abbas Village Bulletin for November 2014

My grandmother who grew up on a farm in Somerset had vivid memories of being around eighteen years of age when the family were forced to sell off their beautiful farm and orchards as a result of her father suffering a serious accident. I think the images of lot numbers fixed onto the pony and trap, pens of animals, butter churns and even drawers of cutlery stayed with her till the day she died.

Selling up a farming enterprise is heart wrenching. Caring for and improving stock or a herd of cattle over the course of many years is a whole way of life, an emotional as well as a physical and business commitment. That is why my heart goes out to the increasing number of dairy farmers who are going out of business.

Since 2000 the number of dairy farmers has halved in the UK with an estimated two dairy farms now being sold off every day.Dairy farmers are in the eye of a ‘perfect storm’, with supermarket price wars, over production globally and EU embargos on fresh produce to Russia, a response to the conflict in Ukraine.

It costs the farmer approximately 33p per litre to produce a litre of milk but many are now receiving only around 25p per litre from the milk processors. Supermarkets use milk as a loss-leader and our farmers argue this devalues it in the eyes of consumers, they are bearing the cost cuts but the processors are still making a healthy profit (funny that!). Some dairies are following the American model where huge herds are kept in vast barns all year around, and fed on fodder based diets. These systems are extremely productive. These cows produce up to 50% more milk than those on pasture and are often milked 3 times a day.

We may in the future get used to seeing bottles labelled ‘Free Range Milk’ on the shelves from smaller dairy farmers, who will command a premium by ensuring their animals have access to pasture for a minimum of 180 days a year. Plenty of scientific evidence to show that milk and meat from animals that are free to graze is nutritionally of far greater value than the alternative. But if that’s what we want, it will come at a cost!