The poetry of milk has gone a little awry. Our land no longer flows with it. Mrs Thatcher took away the bottles of milk brought in after the Second World War to ensure that all British schoolchildren had calcium and vitamins in their diet. Then, in the following decade, the ill-informed fat police put about the idea that we should abandon butter in favour of vegetable oil spreads, and drink fat free milk. And so, this wonderful affordable food sunk further and further in public estimation and desire. If you search for milk at a well known online British supermarket the first three results are flavoured and 1% fat, scroll down and you will find 2.27 litres for £0.89, that’s £0.35 a litre. In the last 12 years, more than half of Britain’s dairy farmers have gone out of business. Beyond the personal tragedy behind each one of these closures is the wider issue of our landscape and our health. Small dairy farms have always been a huge part of the British landscape, from Cornwall to Central Scotland, from Wales to Suffolk. What are we replacing them with? Vast factories producing a milk subject to such a prolonged pasteurisation that it doesn’t go off for a week or more. Sentiment and farming have never been a happy couple, but is this what we want for our environment and our nourishment?
The Swale family have been dairy farmers since the 1940s. Originally based in East Lancashire, they moved to St Michael’s just outside Preston in 1980. One of the reasons for the move was rain, a constant presence on Britain’s west coast, but which, at the time of their re-location, was a mere 36” a year in St Michael’s, as opposed to 56” in East Lancashire where they had come from. Of course, that has all changed. The area was one of the worst hit by the floods in the winter of 2015-6, caused by torrential rain and the tide of the nearby Irish Sea backing up so that fields were underwater for weeks.
In April there are still signs of the devastation, grass is beginning to grow in the drained fields. The farm itself is a hive of industry.
At Joylan Farm (Joyce and Alan are John’s mum and dad) three generations are working John and Anne have 600 cattle, around 400 of which are milking. The calves are fed by hand until around 10 weeks. After weaning they join the adults in the fields. Around 13-14 months the cows are inseminated and, after the birth of the calf, they continue to lactate for around 300 days, then rest for about 50 days.
An average cow will bear 3-4 calves in her lifetime, though some have as many as 12. Around 20% of the cows reach the end of their lactating lives every year and are taken to market to be sold for meat. The beef is quite unlike that of cattle raised specifically for meat, but is delicious cooked slowly in stews and daubes. While good beef cattle fetch £1.23 a kilo, dairy cattle command only £0.77.
The financial aspect of dairy farming is increasingly precarious. The Joylan Farm cattle produce around 4 million tons of slurry a year. This clearly needs to go somewhere, and an ideal way, which is highly energy efficient, is with an anaerobic digester. This does what it says, processing the slurry. The resulting energy produced would run the farm and the compost produced would go some way to reducing the annual fertiliser bill, which is up to £100,000, but the digester costs £1.5 million. And so it goes.
But to the product. If they are not to be annihilated or swallowed up by huge dairy companies milk farmers have to find a different way. Joylan Farm is part of the NEMI group of dairy farms. The brainchild of Andrew Henderson, a nutritionist who believes that most western diets are currently deficient in selenium, which is high in antioxidants and, according to some research, indicated in the maintenance of coronary health. NEMI farmers add organic yeast to their cattle feed,and, in turn, the cows yield milk with a much higher selenium content than the milk available in most supermarkets. (The average U.K. Intake is 30-35pg/d the recommended amount is 55-69pg/d. 500 mls of NEMi milk provides that).
The NEMI group’s concern goes beyond the feed though and is a holistic approach to the whole dairy farm. The main focus is the health of the cow, and cattle in the scheme have longer and more productive lives than the average dairy cow and NEMI rewards good husbandry among its members.
Sustainability is a major concern – food logistics is now a huge business in Europe as any motorway trip will show you. Trucks driving vast distances to deliver animals, feed, produce, with consequent environmental impact. Cows in the NEMI scheme are fed on pasture or feed produced locally and milk is collected by lorry from farms in a small area, making one or two trips a week to a local distribution centre.
Early days, but encouraging results. In the countryside more and more farm shops are stocking it and in London Soho Dairy, which has a stall in Berwick Street market, one of London’s oldest street markets and now threatened with closure because of yet more development of unaffordable housing (but that’s for another story) supplies many prestigious restaurants including the Soho Hotel, Bar Termini (as any aficionado knows, you cannot make a proper cappuccino without good full fat milk), Salt Yard and the Charlotte Street and Covent Garden Hotels.
And the milk – well, it’s delicious, tastes of fields and fresh air, it costs £1.00 a litre. I would suggest, a price worth paying.
Thank you to Penny Averill at Modern Salt for taking the time to write about us!