If Our Small Farms are Allowed to Wither, the Whole Nation Will Suffer

Author: Patrick Holden

Last week, smallholders took direct action over supermarkets’ failure to pay them a fair price. Here, a dairy farmer warns that their demise will deprive the country of skills that we can ill afford to lose.

Conservationists tell us about the extinction of wildlife, but there is another more insidious extinction going on right now – the disappearance of traditional dairy farmers, who have supplied our nation’s milk for generations. As each demoralised farmer quietly gives up and goes out of milk – and there are nearly two a day being forced out right now – a precious and irreplaceable part of our national heritage is lost forever. The Prince of Wales is absolutely right to be highlighting the plight of small family farms in general and dairy farms in particular.

These farmers form the backbone of the rural economy. By their very existence, they play a crucial role in maintaining our countryside. They are the stewards of our landscapes, field boundaries and hedgerows, the guardians of the fertility of the soils, the pastures, biodiversity and the ancient green lanes for herding the cattle in to be milked. As each farm disappears, the skills  of the stockmen are also lost and will be difficult or impossible to replace. These are all priceless elements of our natural and cultural capital.

The reason I feel particularly passionate about this is because I am a dairy farmer myself. I was milking my dairy herd of 80 cows in West Wales on Thursday afternoon when I got a call asking me to write this piece. I am in a lucky position compared with most milk producers, since although we have been receiving less than the cost of production for our milk for a number of years, we have managed to stay in business, partly because we benefit from a modest premium for being organic and also because we are now adding value to our milk by making cheese. I also have a day job, the salary from which goes to shore up any losses.

However, for the majority of UK family dairy farmers, who do not enjoy these privileges, the relentless decline in milk prices has finally driven them into taking direct action, albeit in a less militant fashion than their French counterparts. In doing so, they may not realise that, ironically, they are up against a deeply entrenched orthodoxy in British food and farming circles, shared even by those who claim to represent them. The orthodoxy goes something like this: in an industrial age where reductionist science and global markets rule, we must accept that in farming and food production, as with every other industry, we will be at the mercy of global trade, fluctuating market prices and cycles of boom and bust.