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Super-Dairies Spell the End of England's Green and Pleasant Land

08/10/2014 13:04 BST | Updated 08/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Whatever creed, whatever faith, or race, or culture you identify with, you'll know the closing line of William Blake's 'Jerusalem'. So embedded in our consciousness are its strains you'll know them even if you didn't clock that's the name of the hymn. "England's green and pleasant land" it runs - reverberates, usually, around the church or school hall. Yet how many of us have ever stopped to consider the implications of this line ceasing to be true in future? Not myself, certainly - but for Steve Hook, the Sussex farmer famed for challenging the creeping industrialization of our dairies, it is a prospect he is forced to dwell upon every single day.

Not by his own land, naturally. Steve's pastures are the epitome of green and pleasant: lush, bucolic havens of picture-book cows chewing meditatively, their dark, melting eyes chocolate pools of content. They are his family. Watching them head out to the pastures in spring is like watching "kids in the playground" he grins, as a large cow called Freya nuzzles him. Once there, they'll have over 200 acres to play in, and wild grasses to eat - a diet that is not only purer than that of their industrially farmed peers, but much more varied making the resulting milk both tastier and richer in nutrients.

So why is Steve worried? What could possibly threaten the land of Blake's poem, with men and women like him tending it? The answer you won't have heard unless you're a regular listener of Farming Today. It's on at 6am, which cancels out most of the non-farming folk among us - but what made last week's episode relevant to all of us so interesting was the threat it poses to huge swathes of our countryside and with it, our identity.

Industrial dairy farms. Permanently housed, intensively fed mega-herds of dairy cows carefully monitored to maximize milk yield. In a day, one unit (yep, that's how a cow will likely be considered in this bleak new world) will produce as much as Freya could in a week. In America it's already happening: dozens, if not hundreds of such Wellsian farms exist there, but it's been safeguarded in the UK thanks to local campaigners and environmental groups. From the Soil Association to Compassion for World Farming, each time the question of mega-dairies has come up they point to concerns over animal welfare, disease control, security, transport issues and pollution, and it's gone away again. At least it did until last week, when Fraser Jones, a fourth generation farmer on the Welsh border, appealed to the high court for a large indoor herd and dairy - and six years and millions of pounds worth of legal fees later, won.

It is a precedent-setting case. It means the way is paved for other farmers to build so-called super dairies. They'll be driven, if not by their own wishes, than by the demands of a market which has sent their revenue plummeting well below cost. For the average dairy farmer to break even he needs 31.5p a litre; the most generous supermarket contracts pay 32 and the meanest 26p, leaving them saddled with a crippling £90,000 deficit annually.

Plainly this isn't sustainable. Farmers need to live and the cost of production, from feed to fuel, is rising. No wonder another dairy farm closes down each day. "No farmer goes into this business not caring about cows," Steve points out to me. "They just can't afford to show it if they are to stay afloat." Against this backdrop, it's little wonder the thought of 1,000 cows producing 11,000 litres a milk each a year, for less land and higher output, holds such overwhelming appeal.

"These high production herds will be fed the same food day in day out--highly nutritious, of course, but if you had salmon and caviar every day you'd get bored," says Steve. That argument might not sway those who, like me, eat beans on toast every day themselves - but the environmental impacts should. Contamination from nitrogen, as manure which would normally be spread on surrounding fields piles up in sheds so high you can smell it in nearby villages; strains on the water supply mounting as the traditionally 125-strong herd triples in size; England's fields being paved over by airport-style hangar sheds, storage buildings, large slurry stores and a high water-storage tower - these are just a few of those posited by critics, and that's just the 1000 cows promised by Jones.

The biggest mega dairy in the States houses 32,000 cows. There's not the space for it here, but it's where we could be heading. Unlike America, though, we've not really got room to spare. 80 per cent of our land is dedicated to farming. If it's not national park and it's not been seized by flat developers, it's probably agricultural. "England is a beautiful country, and she's been kept that way because of centuries of farming", says Steve, whose own farm is living proof of this: 200 acres of wild, organic pasture, 66 cows and a dedicated work force of 20. So how does he do it, and how can we support him and others like him in their efforts?

Steve came to his own answer simply: "I firmly believe that these days the only person who makes any margin in the food chain is the final seller," he says. He speaks with experience: his family have farmed the same land in Sussex for centuries. It's to that end he embarked upon selling raw milk: unpasteurised, unhomogenised, and as fresh as you'll find it short of owning a cow and milking it yourself each morning. Having grown up on the stuff (as indeed all farmers do) he knew it tasted good - but under British law it is illegal for anyone but the producer to sell raw milk, thanks to historic - and largely outdated - health risks.

By selling his straight to the consumer he was able to cut out the middleman: supermarkets and big processing companies like Müller Wiseman, First Milk and Dairy Crest. He became the price-maker, and made the farm viable again. Today, Steve's herd accounts for 45 per cent of all raw milk in this country and his fan base is growing. Alas, at £2 for two pints there aren't many of us who can justify it being regular bedfellow for our morning cornflakes - but what we can do is take Steve's principles and apply them to our own everyday approaches to milk.

First: Milk does not cost a pound for four pints, whatever supermarkets say. If it's that price the farmer is losing money at a rate of knots. Within months he is liable to go under, or follow Fraser Jones's footsteps toward a mega dairy - spelling the end of another green and pleasant farm. If you're buying it, you're condoning it. End of.

Second: if you can buy unhomogenised milked, it's one less processing stage so more of your money goes back to the farmer. It's better for you (the fat is more digestible) and it tastes better: it's more flavourful, and boasts a reassuringly natural 'top'. Duchy Originals (Waitrose) and Planet Organic do unhomogenised, as do Ivy House farm, available at Neal's Yard Dairy, Greensmiths and in a few independent cafés. After all, good coffee is nothing without good milk.

Third: buy organic. It's not a cast iron guarantee of welfare but it's better than nothing - particularly if it's Waitrose, Marks and Spencer's or Yeovalley, all of which have stated commitments to British family farms. This will cost you perhaps 10p more, at most: a small price to pay if you like your food nutritious, your animals humanely treated and your countryside green and pleasant, as opposed to blighted with dark satanic cow sheds.