Why my heart bleeds for our milk farmers: Liz Jones meets the mutinous farming families driven to the wall by the supermarketsLinda Wright says she takes anti-depressants because she is so stressed about the futureDaughter works 50 hours a week and son works for free because they can't afford to pay him wagesCosts 36p to produce a pint of milk – out of 27 countries in Europe, only five pay dairy farmers less than UK
07:45 GMT, 3 August 2012
For hundreds of years the same scene has been taking place in the English countryside every day. In the low morning sunlight, cows are being called in for milking. There is a unique mix of noise: the lowing, the pad-pad of hooves, the call of the dairy farmer.
Close up, the animals are enormous, but it’s the size of the udders that is astonishing. They are so swollen and pendulous, the cows can barely negotiate their back legs around them, which gives their gait a curious tentative quality.
As they near the farm gate, in the village of Kentisbury, North Devon, they put on a spurt, eager for food and relief from the pressure of carrying so much milk.
Worrying: Linda and Gary Wright, pictured right with Liz Jones, left, are typical of the hundreds of small milk producers whose livelihoods are being threatened
Some 150 cows file past me and the farmer’s wife, Linda Wright, tells me the name of each and every one. 'That’s Milly, she's 16.' This cow has only half a tail and an udder like a burst balloon.
'She has been “barrened off”, which means she hasn’t given milk for years,' she explains, 'but she still likes to come in, take her place, and join in. We wouldn’t leave her out.'
The cows file into the parlour, always in exactly the same order. Teats are cleaned, and the suction cups placed on. Creamy British milk — the best in the world — surges into giant transparent vats.
A laser detects the moment milking should cease. The cows are released and the next batch troops in. It takes just over two hours, and the cows are then walked back to the pasture.
Dairy farmers have been quietly getting on with providing the nation with milk like this for years.
But recently they hit the headlines, demonstrating and blockading depots and bottling plants in protest at drastic cuts in the price they are paid per litre. They now make a loss on every litre they produce.
Linda and Gary are typical of the hundreds of small producers whose livelihoods are being threatened.
So what time did they get up this morning ‘A quarter to five. We each work 100 hours a week,’ Linda says.
Busy: Linda and Gary's 21-year-old son, Jason, also works on the farm but they cant afford to pay him wages. Their 22-year-old daughter, Emily, works 50 hours a week making cheese
Their 21-year-old son, Jason, also works on the farm but they can’t afford to pay him wages. ‘He does it for love and, hopefully, his future,' Linda says. Their 22-year-old daughter, Emily, works 50 hours a week making cheese.
On the outside, it’s all very pastoral and romantic. I tell Linda this could be a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel, except for their quad bike.
'And the fact that I’m on antidepressants,’ she says. ‘I’ve been seeing a counsellor for anxiety and stress.'
Linda and Gary have been building up their herd for 21 years. Linda went into dairy farming when she was 16 (she’s now 44). ‘I thought it would be a good life. Hard work, yes; but with animals, which I love.
'Now I can’t sleep with the worry. I feed the family with what we get off the farm and tax credits. We scrape by.'
They farm organically. Last year, OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers’ Cooperative) sold milk on the farm’s behalf for an average price of 31.34p per litre. For the rest of this year it will be 34p to 35p.
After February 2013, it will drop to 27p for one month. Beyond that prices are more difficult to predict.
Gary and Linda say 27p is 'so low it's a joke — but we don’t get a choice'.
A spokesman for OMSCo told me this week that 27p is 'a very low price'.
Angry: Liz Jones pictured centre with the ranks of defiant farmers wives and children and Barton Dairy Farm in Kentisbury, north Devon
Farmers are trapped in year-long contracts and sell to processors, who pasteurise and homogenise the milk, and then distribute to the big supermarkets.
There are just a handful of outlets — Dairy Crest, Robert Wiseman, Arla, First Milk — for all this milk. Not quite a monopoly, but it’s close.
When Wiseman, owned by German company Muller, dropped its price for non-organic milk at the farm gate by 2p in June, taking the average price down to 24.73p (non-organic milk has cost more to produce due to the terribly wet summer, up to 30p a litre, meaning a loss of around 5p for every litre they sell) the rest followed like dominoes.
Out of 27 countries in Europe, only five pay dairy farmers less than we do.
I ask Linda how much it costs to produce a litre of organic milk
'Thirty-six pence,' she says.
It is these plummeting prices being forced on farmers by processors — who themselves are being squeezed by the supermarket giants — that has caused the recent, unprecedented scenes, such as 70 tractors blockading the Wiseman depot in Somerset.
And it is this crisis that has forced the unassuming Linda to take part in the first political protest of her life. She joined a delegation of farmers who marched on Westminster on July 11.
Was she nervous, standing up in front of all those men, including Agriculture Minister Jim Paice, to say her piece
'I was worried I’d start to cry, but I managed to say my bit, which was why can there be fair trade for banana farmers but not for us I felt proud.'
Stressful: Linda – pictured here with husband Gary and their 150-strong herd – says she is on anti-depressants and is seeing a counsellor because she is so worried about the future
Later that day, I sit in Linda’s farmhouse kitchen with a group of women who all have cows to bring in and husbands and children to feed but who have dropped everything to come along to tell me exactly why they cannot take any more.
'It’s profiteering,' exclaims Jo Dallyn, a 42-year-old Jilly Cooper lookalike who has a dairy farm in Muddiford. 'It’s immoral. I work seven days a week from dawn till dusk, even though I’ve just had major stomach surgery, and I’m on less than the minimum wage.'
The farmers all have overdrafts, some as big as 200,000 — which is perhaps no surprise when their electricity bills can be around 10,000 a year because of all the milking equipment they use.
Some admit that worries over debts have prompted them to call the Rural Stress Network helpline. (Who knew there was such a thing)
'Twenty years ago, the bank manager would shake you by the hand and know your name. Now they don’t want to know,' says Debbie Lewis, 49, who farms 450 cows.
'We had a horrendous experience with HSBC. The manager had no agricultural experience and they treated us as if we were the worst customers on the planet.'
Another difference from 20 years ago, when milk at the farm gate (the price the farmer gets) was 20p a litre, is the bigger herd sizes
Loss making: Chief Executive of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers Nick Everington holding a bottle of milk representing the losses made by dairy farmers, at the National Farmer's Union 'Dairy Summit' last month
'Back then, we milked 180 cows,' says Jo. 'We sold our house to buy a herd and lived in a caravan! But you could make a living. /08/03/article-0-142702BF000005DC-381_638x343.jpg” width=”638″ height=”343″ alt=”Action: Farmers protested last month at the low price they are receiving for their milk. Pictured here waving at a milk tanker as it leaves the Dairy Crest milk processing plant at Foston in Derbyshire last month” class=”blkBorder” />
Action: Farmers protested last month at the low price they are receiving for their milk. Pictured here waving at a milk tanker as it leaves the Dairy Crest milk processing plant at Foston in Derbyshire last month
A surprise is that the room is
unanimous in wanting the Government to ditch the dairy subsidy — an EU
directive which means an average 38,000 of taxpayers’ money is paid to
every farm each year.
disgusting thing, it distorts everything,' says Jo. 'The supermarkets
see the dairy subsidy as theirs. Tesco will see how much we earn, and
think they can push us down. We would rather the taxpayer kept the money
and spent it on paying us more for our milk.'
Everyone feels the talks that have taken place since the demonstrations and blockades have achieved little.
'Morrisons and Asda said they would put their price up by 5p, but that they would review it in five months’ time,’ says Debbie. ‘We’re worried once this story is no longer in the headlines that we’ll be at their mercy again.'
Everyone feels the situation is a timebomb. Farmers will not be able to invest in new buildings or new equipment. What if next winter is as harsh as the last Hardly anyone in the room has a pension.
'I’d love to see my children go into dairy farming,' says Sue Friend, 39, here with carrot-topped Molly, eight, and Henry, five. She has 52 cows in the nearby village of Shirwell.
'Henry would be the fifth generation. But why would they want to work the hours they see their father work, or worry the way their mum worries'
Making a noise: Protests against the low price dairy farmers are receiving for milk were held in different parts of the country. Members of the Gisburn WI protest are shown outside an ASDA store in Lancashire
So what will be the consequences of these price cuts
had a calf with a damaged leg,' says Jo. 'You think to yourself, “How
much will the vet cost” Do you bandage it yourself, take it to the vet,
or shoot it'
What did she do 'I called the vet!' The room vibrates with laughter.
about the pressure to cull cows younger and younger, as soon as
productivity drops (The average cow is culled aged five or six, when
their life span can be 20.)
Linda has elderly cows and keeps calves with their mums, which is unusual. The other wives call her 'weird'.
It’s here that I must declare an interest — for a small proportion of the milk she and Gary produce is supplied to my own company, Cow Nation. I set it up in November 2011, keen for a new dairy product that is both fair to farmers and cows.
Although it isn’t widely distributed, it is now sold in Selfridges and online for 1.99 a litre.
I don’t make a penny from the business but pay Gary and Linda 50p a litre. The extra money goes towards keeping the cows once their milk production ceases.
Any male calves — and our cows only calve two or three times — are 'carried' by the herd. It’s the first slaughter-free dairy in the world.
When I ask what their fears are, everyone talks at once. 'Mega dairies.' 'Milk imported from overseas.''Having to give up.' 'Illness. We still have to milk when we have flu.' 'What will happen to our children.' 'Putting food on the table.'
All agree we need a food policy that prevents an unregulated market pandering to the lowest common denominator. Everyone wants the Government to take a more active role on the issue.
Retail milk prices are at a seven-year low. That a versatile, historic, home-grown food is today cheaper than bottled water is a travesty.
'The welfare of the cows will suffer on some farms, certainly,’ says Linda, as she shows me out.
'These,’ she says, as we look out over the ancient pasture, which glows red in the sunset, ‘are the last cows standing.'