Micro-dairies: Today – eccentric. Tomorrow – the norm

The following is a general intro to the idea of micro-dairies, written for the excellent soon-to-be-launched on-line magazine/website Nourish, based in Brazil (of which more later). But it was prompted by a two-day meeting at Monkton Wyld in Dorset, organized by Simon Fairlie, micro-dairy farmer and editor of The Land (which for everyone interested in farming, or trying to make sense of the state of the world, is essential reading).

The talk in Britain these days among champions of Agrarian Renaissance is of micro-dairies: herds of half a dozen to perhaps 40 cows (top whack), designed to serve local communities. Units with fewer than half a dozen cows are being called “nano-dairies”. The British government, wedded to the neoliberal agenda and equating progress with industrialization, tells us that no dairy with fewer than 100 cows and preferably 200 is worth considering, and favours US-style high-tech, all-housed megadairies, with several thousand cows apiece – up to 30,000 or perhaps even more. They are known in appropriately hideous new-speak as “Concentrated Animal Feed Operations”, or “CAFOs”. Anything smaller than that the government says is economically “non-viable”, and indeed it does its best to ensure that this is so (for example with subsidies for big farms only, and planning laws that make it impossible for small farmers to live on their own farms, which livestock farmers of almost all kinds generally need to do). The last five British governments of all parties have regarded all farm produce of the kind formerly known as food, as commodities, to be sold on the global market to the highest bidder. In line with this idée fixe the present government is urging our dairy farmers to produce huge surpluses of milk, the more the merrier, then reduce it to powder and sell it to India. That this would put 30 million Indian farmers and their families out of work is not considered important, or indeed is not considered at all. The British government is still officially waging a “war against poverty” but the siren call of the market, like Jack London’s call of the wild, must be answered at all costs. From governments like ours, a mishmash of accountants and “professional politicians” with a singular absence of thinkers and moralists, we cannot expect coherence. It is taken to be self-evident, of course, that all commodities must be produced as cheaply as possibly, where cost is assessed entirely in cash terms and “externalities” are not costed at all. High tech is deemed to be essential at every turn, and all this – maximum output at minimum cost (with selective accountancy) is called “progress”.

British farmers – like most farmers the world over – are suffering horribly from this mind-set – and especially, right now, the dairy farmers. Thus in 2011 WSPA (now known as WAP: World Animal Protection) reported that Britain had lost two thirds of its dairy farmers in the previous decade – from about 30,000 in 2000, down to around 11,000. We continue to lose one more dairy farm every day – each, presumably, with several workers. If a factory closes with the loss of a few hundred jobs it rightly makes the national news, but the loss of several thousand jobs a year from Britain’s dairy farms alone goes unremarked – except insofar as it is seen as “progress”: the demise of an obsolete industry. The National Farmers Union (NFU) goes along with this mythology. Never was the term “union” applied so inappropriately.

As WSPA (WAP) points out, the collateral damage from mega-dairies, to the biosphere as well as to communities, is horrendous (a theme to be returned to). It’s claimed too that welfare standards are high but the cows are required to produce up to 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) per lactation, or preferably more, which is roughly six times as much as a wild cow and twice what would have been very acceptable a generation ago. Modern dairy cows, Holsteins, are udders on legs with a metabolic rate equivalent to that of a Tour de France cyclist (according to Professor John Webster, in Animal Husbandry Regained, Routledge 2013). They are beset by lameness, mastitis, and general metabolic breakdown and rarely last beyond three lactations, although traditional dairy cows commonly stayed in good fettle for 10 lactations or more. Yet still the cry from on high is for more and more production (output per cow, like output per worker, is the principal criterion of excellence) and industrial farmers, obliged above all to “compete”, must answer it. The milk in the end is pooled and homogenized – the more anonymous the better – and, since the cow has been fed to the gills on high-energy concentrates, it is high in saturated fats and commensurately lower in omega-3 polyunsaturates.  The farmer is typically paid less than the cost of production (British farmers in these ostensibly free market days must live on EU subsidies) and the milk is sold in supermarkets as a loss leader, for less than half the total production cost. That is progress. Or at least it is the market unfettered, which is what progress is taken to mean.

The micro-dairy reverses all that. The milk is anything but anonymous. It is delivered locally and the customers know which herd if not which individual cow it comes from. At such a level, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” really can work: if any small farmer steps out of line (though why would they?) the customers know and react accordingly. Sometimes, though not necessarily, the local community actually own the cows, or at least have shares in them. The cows are from traditional breeds, bred for the small scale: Ayrshire, Jersey, Dairy Shorthorn, and the much neglected but altogether delightful Gloucester (black with a white stripe down the back, very sweet-natured, and the source of Single Gloucester cheese, now rare but one of England’s finest).

Micro does not necessarily imply pasture-fed, but in practice the animals are usually fed on fresh grass and accompanying herbs (and browse) as far as possible. This is good for welfare (cows are built to graze and browse) and for the biosphere: a pasture managed with sympathy is rich in invertebrates and hence in birds, while fears of global warming are much exaggerated since it seems that in well-managed pasture more carbon is sequestered than is released. Pasture-feeding is good for the consumer, too: Carlo Leifert and his colleagues at Newcastle University have recently shown that milk from cows fed on pasture rather than concentrate has a far better ratio of omega-3 to saturated fatty acids (See British Journal of Nutrition: “Higher PUFA and omega-3 PUFA, CLA, a-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic bovine milk: A systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analysis”; and “Composition differences between organic and conventional meat; a systematic literature review and meta-analysis”.)  As a very considerable bonus, milk from pasture-fed cows tastes good. We get our milk from a local micro-herd of Ayrshires, and it’s brilliant. It’s delivered to the door (a rare service these days) and the farmer and his mates are friends of ours. That is a bonus too. We have shares in a cow – a “cow bond”.

To be sure, our local Ayrshires average only around 5000 litres a year – far less than the national average which is now around 7500, and about half the output of the “elite” industrial animals. But the farmer and his assistant, with their 20 cows (around 17 in milk at any one time) make a living (and are absolutely absorbed by their work). They sell it to us, delivered, for £1.20 per litre for whole milk (semi-skimmed is paradoxically dearer). That is far more than the loss-leader supermarket variety but is not dearer than supermarket organic. So the income per cow per year is around £5000. Twenty cows provide a gross return per year of £100,000 (around US $140,000). Costs are irreducibly low (very little bought-in feed, no high-tech revolving milking parlour, and so on).

Many still argue, of course, that the micro-dairy is just an exercise in nostalgia, for the effete middle classes. The masses need the mega-outputs of industrial farms and cannot afford to pay £1 or more per litre for milk when supermarkets may sell it for less than half of that. Besides, it’s said, half the world’s population now live in cities and in Britain and other “developed” countries it’s nearer 90% and city-dwellers cannot possibly be supplied from small farms, dairy or otherwise.

Like much – most? — of modern food-lore, this is nonsense. When I was a lad my home town of London was about the biggest in the world with 8 million plus yet our food was very largely supplied by mostly small farms in the surrounding “home” counties. Small well-managed farms can be far more productive per unit area than big ones. We just need a lot more of them. Urban and peri-urban farms can be among the most productive and profitable of all, and dairy lends itself very well to the peri-urban farm. It’s just a question of priorities. Land doesn’t have to be sold to the highest bidder.  If supermarkets as a whole seem cheap it’s partly because the economy is tipped so heavily in their favour, and partly sleight of hand. Ultra-cheap milk is a marketing lure, bait for the impulse purchase of the TV dinner and the cook-in sauce. Supermarkets seem cheap too because they drive very hard bargains, playing off the farmers the world over, one against another. They are not so cheap as they seem, either, since 80% of money spent in supermarkets goes to support the food chain itself, including the supermarket. The farmer gets only 20% of the retail price. With traditional food chains farmers receive anything from 35 to 100 % of the retail price, depending on how far they care to double up as processors and retailers. Besides, a million people in Britain must now resort to food banks, where they may pick up free tins of bottom-of-the range reconstituted pork and dubious own-brand biscuits. To be sure, many of the people who work in food banks are heroes who strive very hard to raise the standards but even so, the fact that such hand-outs are needed in one of the world’s richest countries is a disgrace. Britain could easily ensure that everyone has access to excellent food, and most of it – all but the exotica – could and should be grown at home. The problem does not lie with agriculture, but with an economic system that seems designed to produce inequality, and succeeds in this to a spectacular extent. The mystery is why we put up with all this, and why the opposition parties don’t more effectively oppose. It seems that farming is not on their radar.

Again, it seems, the most realistic way forward is through Agrarian Renaissance – not merely to protest, but to build the alternative despite the status quo, and allow and encourage the status quo to wither on the vine.  Micro-dairies are a prime example of what’s required.

Colin Tudge, March 7 2016