The plight of Britain’s dairy farmers was highlighted by the Nocton mega-dairy proposals, which painted a grim picture for the future of food production. Vigorous campaigning saw off the plans, a major victory for those of us who believe that small mixed farms are the way forward. However, as we have seen in the past with pig farming, the stated desires of consumers do not always come through in their buying choices.
Where does this leave the dairy industry now?
In 2002 there were 19,000 dairy farms in England and Wales but by 2010 this figure had reduced to 11,000. The average herd size increased from 75 to 113 over the same period, whilst the yield per cow had increased from 5,958 litres in 2000 to 7,096 litres in 2010.
If we go back even further, say to when I was a child 40 years ago, many more changes are evident. First and foremost, milk was delivered to the doorstep of nearly every home in the country. So important was milk considered for the health of the nation that free milk was drunk by every school child – actually the factor that led to me hating milk. As a suburban child we were already subjected to the pasteurised milk of Unigate dairies but it was a completely different story for the country dwelling boy who was later to become my husband. He was fortunate enough to be brought up on the unpasteurised milk of Jersey cows from a farm in his village.
Rather than give in to the pressures to produce more and more volume for pitiful return some farmers have turned back to producing a premium product for direct sale to consumers. It is a brave move, but when bankruptcy is often the only other alternative anyway, it seems worth giving it a shot. And how satisfying the job must have been for the farmer who once fed every child in the village and whose milk is so fondly remembered even today.
As usual education is crucial if small independent dairies are to be successful. For example, what is meant by a “premium product” and can consumers be convinced that it is not only worth paying more for, but will also remember to place their relevant order rather than just pick up milk whenever and wherever it is required?
What is premium milk?
The first factor in premium milk is usually breed – large scale dairying relies almost entirely on the large, bony, black and white Holstein – bred for yield but of a milk that has been described as “white water”. The favourite breeds for small dairies are usually one of the Channel Island cattle – Jersey or Guernsey, renowned for their rich creamy milk, but other traditional British dairy breeds include the Ayrshire, British Friesian, Shorthorn or even rarer old breeds such as the Old Gloucester.
Feed is equally essential to the quality of the milk and this means grass rather than cereal. Rich mixed pasture provides everything that is necessary for cows and they will even seek out plants to satisfy their medicinal requirements. But you need plenty of pasture to be able to move the cows around daily to keep it fresh and of the right length. Care is also needed to avoid plants that would taint the flavour of the milk. Winter feeding provides more of a challenge and it is important to check what your dairy uses at this time – hay or grass silage should be the mainstay. There is plenty of evidence that grass fed cows provide nutritionally richer milk.
The ace in the pack of small dairies is providing raw, i.e. unpasteurised, milk. This is still legal in England and Wales, although not Scotland, but carries a number of additional requirements. Not only does the milk have to be labelled with a health warning similar to that required for cigarettes, but the greatest restriction is that it can only be sold direct from the farm. This can include Farmers Markets or delivery rounds and even, as Hook and Son have now piloted, via mail-order.
Steve Hook, from Longley’s Farm in East Sussex, milks 74 British Friesian cows but even his organic certification was not enough to ensure financial viability. He estimates that he would have received just 15 pence per pint had he supplied a large dairy but he recognised the demand for raw milk and launched a national mail-order service in February 2010. Within nine months he had doubled his sales to 1400 pints per week at a price of between £1.54 and £2.31per pint (depending on quantity ordered) including delivery.
So what is it that makes raw milk so desirable? Probably the biggest factor is health, as pasteurisation destroys not only bad bacteria but also the beneficial bacteria, some of the vitamins and also important enzymes. If the price seems high consider what some people are prepared to pay for drinks containing plant sterols to reduce cholesterol or probiotic drinks, most of which contain only one strain so that you would need to drink a variety to have a balanced internal flora. All of these are contained in raw milk from cows that have fed on a varied pasture. Those who advocate raw milk are convinced that it builds a stronger immune system and that the risks are minimal – there is plenty of information about this already on the internet and I have listed some links below. However one point worth making here regarding the health benefits of raw milk is that they relate to the whole product, i.e. not only are they not destroyed by pasteurisation but they are also not removed by skimming. At a time when more semi-skimmed milk is sold than whole, this could be an issue but butterfat is an integral part of milk and, contrary to what people have been led to believe, it can actually help with weight control. Bear in mind also that as the milk is not homogenised the cream will rise to the top so that what is beneath is effectively semi-skimmed.
A significant proportion of those who buy raw milk are lactose intolerant. This might sound like the latest allergy fad but in fact it is perfectly normal. Humans are the only mammal capable of digesting milk sugar (lactose) as adults, and this ability is the result of evolutionary changes that have been taking place since man first domesticated animals for milk production. Lactase, the enzyme necessary to break down lactose in order for it to be digested, is present in the gut in all new born mammals but decreases until around the age of 2 or 3. Raw milk includes lactase but this is one of the enzymes destroyed by pasteurisation. Writing on this subject in On Food and Cooking Harold McGee notes…
Most Westerners, in particular those of northern European background, are capable of digesting lactose in adulthood. Their lactase levels, and those of a couple of nomadic African tribes, do not drop off as drastically as those of the rest of the world’s population…This is not to say that only a minority can eat dairy products. Most lactose-intolerant adults can consume about a pint of milk a day, which provides valuable amounts of several nutrients, without severe symptoms. (This is not true of those people who are allergic to milk proteins – Lactose intolerance is not an allergy). And cheese, yogurt and other cultured foods are practically free of lactose because the fermenting bacteria use it as a fuel.
This is certainly food for thought as far as I am concerned. Since babyhood I have never drunk milk, even in tea and coffee, although I enjoy cheese and yogurt. I put this down to my school days, when the smell was enough to make me feel sick, but presumably by not drinking milk my lactose tolerance would now also be impaired.
Raw Milk in the Kitchen
What I have noticed is the absence of that unpleasant smell in raw milk. This I now realise is owing to the presence of lactobactilli those same wild yeasts that I cultivate for bread making. The lactobacilli slowly (at least at refrigerator temperature) make lactic acid, producing a pleasantly tangy taste (and smell) whereas pasteurised milk actually goes bad. In cream the lactobactilli create Crème Fraiche, in milk the acidity will eventually result in the solid curds separating from the liquid whey. This naturally soured milk (sometimes called Clabbered) has been appreciated in many northern European cultures for centuries, only to disappear with pasteurisation. Cooks also took advantage of the acidity in baking – when mixed with an alkaline substance, usually baking soda, it creates carbon dioxide lightening the mixture. Most housewives kept sour milk for this purpose – in Britain Scones were the classic dish, but in Ireland the bread itself relied upon this reaction for leavening. Today cultured buttermilk can be bought, but it has had the culture artificially added to achieve this result.
Buying raw milk opens the door to a whole host of long forgotten cooking possibilities. Yorkshire Curd Tarts (the most famous of all the many versions of cheesecake that have traditionally been made in the UK since at least the 17th century) arose as a way of utilising sour milk. If you have made a cheesecake recently you will have realised how difficult it is to buy good quality curd or cream cheese. It is essentially a fresh cheese that needs immediate consumption, so to extend its shelf life it now has to contain high amounts of salt, even in the best of those available. I have put together a number of recipes that utilise the basic dairy skills that would once have been practised in every household, including ideas for using leftover whey. It should be noted however that heating milk, even adding it to hot tea or coffee, is akin to pasteurisation and whilst any milk dishes will be enhanced by using whole milk from traditional dairy breeds fed on grass, this holds true whether or not the milk is pasteurised. My recipes concentrate on raw milk.
It is by no means easy sailing for those farmers who do sell raw milk direct to consumers but what is on the one hand a restriction on the other is also a benefit. In my opinion the future of farming depends on farmers cutting out the middle man. Once you have established your customer base it is easy to sell the other products produced on a mixed farm.
Dreamers Farm in Somerset, who deliver their raw Jersey milk and cream to my door, is a small farm by any standards. They milk only 12 cows and even this has to be done in 6 separate stints in the tiny milking parlour they have built on their farm. However they also rear Hereford cattle for beef, Lleyn sheep, and a Gloucester Old Spot/Landrace cross for pork. Together with their free range eggs there is plenty of scope for cross-selling to the customer base they are establishing through their milk. At present they are delivering across a fairly wide area – I must be 25 miles away. But the milk and cream keep perfectly well in the fridge for the week between deliveries, after which I use any leftover for cooking. Ultimately it must of course be the aim for them to sell all of their produce much closer to home, and hopefully for me to find another farmer wishing to do something similar in my area. But in the meantime it seems to be working and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.
Where to find Raw Milk near you
A raw milk finder appears on the following website: www.naturalfoodfinder.co.uk/unpasteurised-raw-milk-uk but if this doesn’t bring any joy don’t forget that Hook and Son www.hookandson.co.uk will deliver anywhere in the country, although this is the most expensive way to buy.
Further information about Raw Milk
This UK site has links to a number of articles about raw milk as well as producers: http://www.seedsofhealth.co.uk/articles/index_dairy.shtml
For the sake of balance, here is the legal position relating to raw milk, but please note that I am only advocating raw milk from single farms, where it is possible to check all the other attributes that go to make premium milk. http://www.food.gov.uk/foodindustry/guidancenotes/hygguid/rawmilkcream
For more information about what makes quality pasture see: http://www.lynherdairies.co.uk/pdf/pasture-quality-ben-mead.pdf