Last update: November 2012
Organic micro-dairies – the way forward?
As milk prices fail to meet production costs, Michael Pooler asks whether small-scale organic operations can be a viable alternative to conventional dairy farming.
The recent blockades of dairy processing plants were the sign of an industry in crisis. Perpetually low milk prices are forcing many farmers out of business and jeopardising the long-term sustainability of production, in turn leading to the creation of ‘super-dairies’ as producers try to cut costs and find economies of scale.
Yet for a handful of farmers scattered across the country the answer lies in reversing this logic. Although there appear to be no more than half a dozen in operation, small-scale micro dairies, run according to organic principles, show how it may be possible to produce the white stuff in an environmentally sound and economically viable way.
“We set up at a time when the dairy industry was at a low,” says Matt Dale of North Aston Dairy in Oxfordshire. “I was convinced that doing it on a small scale with direct sales would work just as well. This was not only on business grounds but for environmental and social reasons as well.”
Starting with just three cows and two part-time employees in 2006, today Matt has 17 cows on 40 acres of land – a size dwarfed by ordinary farms. Milk is pasteurised on-site and deliveries made by car twice a week to 250 customers, three-quarters of whom live within a 2-mile radius. This cuts out the middle man, meaning they pocket the full sale price – a whopping £1.10 compared to the paltry 26p that conventional farmers receive, not even enough to cover costs in most cases – while indirectly lowering transport emissions. Despite the recession, Matt’s sales have remained stable; indeed, he says, the greatest challenge is to continually meet demand.
This system of milk production carries the environmental benefits of organic minus the intensive character of farms that supply supermarkets. Cows roam freely and there is a higher ratio of workers to animals compared with conventional operations. As a result the animals are paid greater attention and there is a variety of jobs for Matt and his partner Josh. On a daily basis this can include milking, grass management, pasteurisation, bottling, tractoring, deliveries and market.
“We enjoy what we do, as we are not doing the same task for years on end. There is a diversity of activities and we learn different skills. We get to know the cows as individuals and this is better for their welfare,” says Matt.
Working on a small scale does however have its disadvantages. Specialist equipment, such as pasteurising machines, is expensive to purchase and repair. A major stumbling block for anybody wishing to set up is raising the initial capital, as banks are reluctant to go near such ventures, which are considered risky and not lucrative. Matt Dale for example sold ‘cow bonds’ to customers, providing a low but steady return that gave a sense of connection to the way in which their food is made.
But low turnover can prove fatal. In Moray, Scotland, Nick Rodway ran a popular micro dairy with his wife Pam, winning awards for his home-made cheese, but was forced to wind up a year-and-a-half ago. “The problem is that you never make enough money to invest in new equipment or buildings,” he says. “Our buildings were old and decayed but we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Nor are micro dairies exempt from the laws of biology – a truth somewhat inconvenient for some vegetarians – namely, the fate of male calves who, not endowed with udders, are surplus to requirements and sent to the abattoir.
North Aston runs a small side line in rose veal (not to be confused with much-maligned white veal), a kind of beef that comes from free-range calves reared until nine months. “We offer it to our customers as it is always going to be a part of the business of milk production. It is important people know that. We have even converted a few vegetarians,” says Matt Dale.
Evidently micro dairies are not a great money-spinner, but with a strong customer base and dedication they can be made to work. Producers set their own prices rather than being dictated to by large purchasers and so can plan their business in the medium-term according to a local market. Unfortunately for conscientious consumers, they are few and far between and located almost exclusively in rural settings.