Monday, 21 October 2013

Wells Food Festival

The inaugural Wells Food Festival certainly brought a buzz to Wells last Sunday with the market place packed with stalls and visitors tasting and purchasing the various artisan foods on offer. But of particular interest to me was the debate which was held at the Bishop’s Barn entitled “Milk Matters” and if the turnout is anything to go by the general consensus is that it does.

Over 100 people packed in to the Barn to listen to the debate which was preceded by a blind tasting of 6 different samples of milk which varied from UHT and pasteurised supermarket milk to unpasteurised Guernsey milk. Everyone had an opportunity to taste and vote for their favourite milk and in the end it was the pasteurised Jersey milk from Ivy House Farm, Beckington near Frome which was voted the audience’s favourite. This was fitting because Geoff Bowles of Ivy House Farm, stood in at the last minute for one of the panellists who was unable to attend the debate.

The debate itself was interesting, chaired by environmentalist Chris Banes with dairy farming panellists, in addition to Geoff Bowles, including Ruth Kimber from Charlton Musgrove, David Cotton from West Bradley, Judith Freene from Pilton and Steve Hook from Sussex.

Each panellist told the audience about their experiences in dairy farming including the opportunities and challenges they face in their own businesses. David Cotton, a 4th generation dairy farmer explained about milk production from the perspective of a mainstream dairy farmer, where he regards himself as the primary producer, selling his milk to a processor who will then process the milk to bring it to the market, whether that be liquid milk, butter, cream or cheese.

Ruth Kimber, similarly sells most of their milk to Wyke Farms who turn it in to farmhouse cheese, while the other panellists explained how they have taken the processing and marketing of their milk in to their own hands so as to take advantage of niche markets, bringing them closer to the customer and thereby gaining premium prices for their milk products.

Judith Freene of Brown Cow Organics explained how she moved in to yoghurt production in response to the slump in organic milk price some years ago, which alongside their other products has proved a great success. Geoff Bowles also explained his story of how, when his farm was cut in half by a new road in 1983, his family decided to process their own milk in order to survive, initially driving to London to sell milk in premium outlets and subsequently supplying customers direct and via a wide range of small retail outlets.

Similarly Steve Hook, who is featured in a documentary film about his farm, called the Moo Man, explained how he decided to sell raw, unpasteurised organic milk to the public and how he has tapped in to a niche market where he is able to command a price of up to £2/pint, as compared to the lowest price I could find on the Tesco website which was 25p/pint.

This perhaps explains the dilemma many dairy farmers find themselves in; they either have to find a niche market which usually involves processing their own milk and selling their product direct to the customer or through outlets where they can achieve a premium price or, as in the case of David Cotton and the vast majority of dairy farmers, they have to become as efficient as they possibly can to survive the highly competitive retail market dominated by the supermarkets.

Herein lies the crux of the problem facing many dairy farmers; do they go niche or remain primary producers of a commodity. Either way it is hard work, often requiring significant investment with loans which will have to be paid off by the next generation. This is why many dairy farmers, especially those without successors, continue to leave the industry; there are currently less than 15,000 left in the UK, a number which has halved over the last 15 years.

Accordingly, what came over very clearly to me was that there is one concern which cuts across niche and commodity producers alike and that is the need to attract the next generation in to dairy farming, whether that be to take on the family farm or to work for others as a herdsmen or other skilled workers. But in all instances the financial viability of the dairy business is the key in order to be able to pay such staff a competitive wage to enable them to live in the countryside which is valued by so many and which has been shaped by dairy farmers over the centuries.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

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