Below is an article that Open Jar Collective member, Clementine Sandison, wrote recently for Nourish Magazine. We’d like to share this with you in order to keep the conversation flowing about dairy.

Dairy Country by Clementine Sandison

What’s special about Dumfries and Galloway? It grows grass well. 
David Finlay, Cream o’ Galloway

We’d heard that 75% of Dumfries and Galloway was classed as agricultural land, but with very little first hand knowledge of the area, myself and 4 other artists who make up Open Jar Collective, embarked upon a research project to investigate dairy farming in and around Gatehouse of Fleet for the Environmental Art Festival Scotland.  We were interested in finding out about the landscape, the history of dairy, the challenges faced by farmers, the dairy supply chain, views on animal welfare and people’s relationship to the milk they sell or consume on a daily basis.

During the course of our conversations with organic and non-organic dairy farmers, cheese makers and academics we have begun to build up a picture of the pressures faced by producers and the competing demands for ‘efficiency’ and ‘economies of scale’ on the one hand, and ‘environmental sustainability’ on the other.  

Dr. Dave Roberts heads up the SRUC Dairy Research Centre in Dumfries where they are carrying out applied research into the welfare of continuously housed cows, greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cows, farm land biodiversity and a range of other concerns.

“I think we’re the only farm in the country where we don’t feed the cows on anything we could use ourselves… Land is going to be one of the big issues in 10 years time, with increasing world population, increasing demand for animal protein, increasing effects of climate change, which is interesting because it might mean that the South of France and Spain have more drought conditions, so there’s a bigger emphasis on us in the North of Europe to grow food for the rest of Europe.”  He argues that we could make better use of land by growing cereal for humans to eat and only feeding animals on the by-products of such crops.

At the Dairy Research Centre one group of cows is kept indoors and fed on waste products from breweries, breakfast cereals, grain production, rapeseed oil, and the sugar industry.  The other group of cows is fed entirely on crops grown on the farm with no imported feed, in order to measure the differences between these two systems.  Dr. Roberts believes that financial viability is a crucial factor in sustainability of dairy farming.  He says farmers expect the SRUC to provide research into “profitable systems” that “tick the boxes of environmental sustainability” but suggests that “most farmers won’t go to the extreme of relying on animal manure and clover” as in organic systems.

At Littleton Farm near Gatehouse of Fleet 1200 cows are housed in one purpose built dairy unit and milked 3 times a day.  Dairy farmer Robert Dodds explains that the “main driver on the farm at the moment is our carbon footprint.  It’s economically and environmentally right and we get big benefits both ways.” They buy waste products to feed the cows which makes up half their diet, and they have invested in renewable energy including wind, solar, hydro and anaerobic digestion.  They pump and filter water from the burn to reduce use of mains water and have equipment that allows them to reuse the heat from the milk cooling system.  It’s an extremely high-tech operation. 

“Our business before was very intensive, high in-put trying to get high out-put, but by doing a carbon footprint we have reduced our fuel, sprays and our fertiliser.  I guess you could say we’re shifting slightly more organic and using more of what we’ve got but with regards to converting to organic, financially it just doesn’t stack up. I’m not selling a product direct to the customer.”  

Littleton Farm sells 34,000 litres of milk a day to Muller-Wiseman, where it’s taken down to Manchester for processing and distributed to major supermarkets.  When asked if it bothered him that none of his milk was sold locally, he said they had considered setting up a creamery so they could sell their products locally but decided against it. 

“I think it’s a global trend, food is moving more central to be processed and then moved back out again, which is probably wrong but I guess that’s what’s happened. The local creamery shut down 4 or 5 years ago.  It’s just comes down to economies of scale and efficiency.”

Barry Graham who has lived and worked at Loch Arthur for the last 27 years believes that the advance of industrial farming systems and ‘efficiency’ has led to a loss of meaningful work and the connection of people to the land.  Loch Arthur is a 500 acre organic farm which is part of the Camphill movement – a socially integrated community where adults with disabilities are involved in the work of the farm, creamery, bakery, café and farm shop.  

Loch Arthur’s focus is on “finding people’s fulfilment in life through their ability to contribute.  Very frequently people who have perceived disabilities are cared for and supported, but people forget that everyone needs fulfilment by way of a job, by way of contributing, not just by going to the shop or to the swimming pool but by saying ‘I make cheese, I run a shop, I work in a kitchen, I see the outcome of my efforts’. ”

“We farm organically because it suits us and we believe in it.  It’s a more suitable system of farming to incorporate people.  So, what you see on our farm that you don’t see much on farms any more, is a lot of people on the land with forks and rakes and wheelbarrows doing things, instead of one or two people with enormous pieces of equipment feeling very soulless.”

Loch Arthur have a herd of 35 dairy cows but they buy additional organic milk from other local farms to meet the demand for their cheese which they produce 15 tonnes of per year.  “We buck the trend in terms of distribution chains because our milk is coming from our farm or quite a small circumference of farms around us.  Our milk is processed here, then produce is sold here, used within the community, or distributed mainly around the central belt of Scotland.”

Another well known dairy farm which has made its name through the sale of organic ice cream is Cream o’ Galloway.  Here we found out that the old Dairy House on the farm also produced about 15 tonnes of cheese per year from 1860-1971.  Farmer David Finlay explains that “cheese making is part of the heritage of Galloway.  We’re remote from the towns but we can get the milk to the towns by turning it into cheese.”

He told us that, at Cream o’ Galloway “we’re trying to produce food sustainably without having an adverse effect on the environment. We’re part of an ethical market.  We can’t compete on a price basis with industrial farms, but industrial farming has a short shelf life and that shelf life is based on the cost of energy.” 

“What we saw from going organic is you don’t necessarily have to produce more to be more profitable.  It’s about reducing the waste in the system because waste creates inefficiencies and cost to society – antibiotic resistance, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution of waterways, loss of biodiversity.  If we don’t get our food system sorted out, the human race, our species is under threat.  We’ve got to get much better at producing what we need by not wrecking the environment we’re living in.” 

It seems clear that the agenda of producing cheap food for people by being globally competitive does not take into account the hidden social and environmental costs of industrial production.  While Loch Arthur and Cream o’ Galloway are inspirational examples of how to develop financially viable organic dairy enterprises, they owe much of their success to creating added value products and developing a strong local customer base through their onsite café and farm shop.  For those dairy farmers who only produce milk, high input industrial farming methods with long distance supply chains and centralised processing are still the norm.

I came away from Dumfries and Galloway feeling that the problem with our food system comes back to the inequity of our economy.  We must make a stronger political case for the redistribution of wealth, not cheaper food, so people can afford to pay a fair price for organic local milk, allowing us to reconnect with the people producing our food and with the land that we rely upon to feed us.

This article appears in the Nourish Scotland Magazine, Autumn 2013, Issue 1.  Open Jar Collective shared research from their project ‘The Dairy House’ as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland in Gatehouse of Fleet on 1 September.


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