Guest blog: Micro-dairying… the ‘Romantic Revolution’

Alex Heffron, from Mountain Hall Farm (Jersey micro-dairy), is speaking at ORFC 2018, on Thursday 4 January, 18:00-19:00 at Turl Street Kitchen: Big, small or not at all? The future of milk and dairy

From time-to-time dairying is forced into change. During the 19th century, due to the establishment of a rail network dairy farms became more easily connected to towns which led to a growth in the production and sale of fresh milk. The regions without rail links continued to focus on cheese and to this day remain strongholds of British cheese. We could even go all the way back to the 14th century and the period following the Black Death when much arable land was converted to pasture, subsequently leading to a growth within dairy farming – both cow’s and sheep’s milk.

As with all farming dairy must adapt to a range of diverse factors. Judging by the current decline in the number of dairy farms across Britain in the last 20 years we are going through another such change. The question is; how will dairy farmers respond?

On one end of the scale some decide to double-down and increase the size of their herds, aiming to produce milk more ‘efficiently’ and benefit from economies of scale. At the other end of the scale some, most likely those without a family farm, are turning to micro-dairying; small herds, focusing on quality over quantity and selling direct.Some choose to process the milk into e.g. cheese, whereas some, like my wife and I, choose to sell as raw milk.

Relatively low start-up costs and the manageability of a small herd for people with no farming background makes this an attractive option for many and it seems there is a mini-growth going on nationally with more micro-dairies springing up all the time.

To me it’s the ‘romantic revolution’ because it goes back to the way dairy farming always was until the industrialisation of food production. Cows known intimately by name and personality, a close relationship between producer and consumer, focus on traditional breeds, low input and cows out on pasture. At a time when milk is becoming increasingly derogatively known as ‘white water’ (even dairy farmers I’ve spoken to refer to it as such, when discussing the processed milk that reaches the supermarket) the return to a high-quality, unhomogenised and possibly unpasteurised milk is able to beat the trend of a downturn in milk consumption.

There is a lot of debate within the wider dairy industry about this downturn in milk consumption, particularly amongst young people, and all sorts of factors blamed but I’ve not yet heard anyone mention the flavour of milk.

Perhaps we now assume that milk just tastes like milk? If like me you were brought up on skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, quite simply why would you desire milk in your diet?

Repeatedly customers say to us they buy our milk because they love the rich flavour of unhomogenised, 100% pasture-fed, Jersey raw milk.People are quite often shocked by the depth of flavour. The milk from our cow Ruby, who produces the milk with the highest butter-fat (7.5%), is the milk that is snatched from the shelf first. I think it’s an interesting insight into just how commoditised and standardised milk has become that no-one within the wider dairy industry has considered that the flavour of milk might just be why less people are drinking it.

When you sell direct to your customer flavour is paramount. We’re asking them to pay a little bit extra, so we have to make that worth it. But it’s not just the flavour. People love coming to see our cows munching on pasture with their calves suckling and being able to give the girls a scratch. We sell the milk, thanks to the genius idea of Christine Page of Smiling Tree Farm, with the name of the cow the milk came from on the bottle. All of our customers seem to love this.

And this isn’t a cynical marketing ploy like supermarkets do when they brand their beef with the name of a fictitious farm. It’s genuine and people know that. That’s why it works. I’m not suggesting the only answer to the current dairy crisis is micro-dairying. I’m not saying it’s superior to other systems. I’m saying it’s a different way and one that particularly works for new entrants to farming like my wife and I. And who knows maybe the seditious idea that larger dairies could actually downsize and make more money isn’t entirely implausible?

Micro-dairying, without subsidy, can be a profitable, fulfilling farming enterprise that can support a decent living and way of life. Romanticism and realism combined – who can argue against that?

If you’re interested in learning more about the practicalities of micro-dairying then come along to the session at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference – learn more here.