The real Archers Country
By Graham Harvey
12th January 2019
January’s not a bad month for starting a revolution. Any day now the new dairy cattle will start arriving at Bridge Farm. Sadly they’re not one of the great British breeds like the Jersey, Ayrshire or Dairy Shorthorn. Helen Archer has chosen a French breed, the Montbeliarde, a red-and-white animal from the department of Doubs in the east of the country.
Still it has to be said that these French cows are very fine animals. Their milk is particularly well suited to cheese-making. And since Helen’s aim is to improve the quality of the milk going into the farm’s organic cheese, her decision is entirely rational.
Besides what matters in dairy farming is, not so much the breed of cow, but how they’re fed and looked after. And I’m glad to say the Bridge Farm “micro-herd” is going to be looked after in a very sound, traditional way.
For a good part of the year they’re going to be out grazing clover-rich grasslands, not shut up in yards and fed on grain as so many mainstream herds are today. And as this is an organic farm a good deal of the winter ration will be made up of conserved grass in the form of hay and silage.
Highly commendable, you may be thinking, but hardly revolutionary. Yet in the razor-edge business of making a living from farming it’s a potential game-changer. Studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition have shown that this kind of pasture-based dairy farming produces milk with higher levels of health-protecting vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional methods.
It also contains higher levels of an amazing substance known as CLA, which protects against heart disease and some cancers. While the compound appears in significant amounts in the milk of grazing animals, it quickly vanishes when those animals are put on a grain-based ration.
Helen Archer’s going to be turning a good deal of her milk into cheese. And very tasty it’ll be too, I’m sure. But if she’s got any sense she’ll also start selling the liquid milk – either raw or pasteurised – in the Bridge Farm shop. If her customers are anything like those for grass-fed milk around the country, she’ll find that they’re willing two or three times more for it than they would for the bog-standard supermarket variety.
At my local farmers’ market in West Somerset there’s a farming family selling unpasteurised milk from their herd of pasture-fed cows at White Horse Farm, Over Stowey in the beautiful Quantock Hills.
Andrew, Sue and Rob Morgan simply call their milk Simply Raw Milk. And quite simply it’s going down a storm with real food enthusiasts at farmers markets across southern England. They include Crediton and Cullompton in Devon, Ascot and Reading in Berkshire, and South Kensington in London.
At this point I ought to declare a sentimental interest in this kind of dairy farming. The first farm I worked on as an agricultural student back in the 1960s had a pasture-fed micro-herd. The family wouldn’t have called it that, of course. To them it was just a bog standard herd of 40 or so cows on a sustainable mixed farm.
In those days most of Britain’s dairy cows grazed clover-rich pasture in summer, and munched on silage or hay in the winter. There was no science to reassure us that the milk produced by these methods was healthy. But we all loved the taste. And we were brought up to believe that the full-fat version – with its distinctive yellow cream layer at the top – would do us nothing but good. Now it’s clear we were right.
How ironic that even as science is establishing the nutritional benefits of pasture-fed milk, this method of production is slipping from use in mainstream dairy farming. Many producers now rely on high-yielding Holstein cows, which are genetically programmed to produce copious amounts of milk.
If they’re to achieve their production potential their feeding has to include large amounts of energy-rich feeds like cereal grains and high-protein foods like soya meal. It means that for all the glitzy marketing, most of the milk on sale in supermarkets is nutritionally inferior to the milk we drank back in the 1950s. The dairy industry has allowed its product to be positioned in the market, not as a nutritious food, but as a low-cost global commodity forever vulnerable to cheap imports.
Next to consumers, farmers have suffered most from these changes. It’s why nine out of ten of them have gone out of business since The Archers first went on-air. Now the emergence of pasture-fed micro-herds offers an opportunity to bring real milk back to the towns and villages of Britain. What better storyline for this daily drama of country life.
Will Helen Archer realise the potential of her new micro-dairy to spark an economic revolution in the countryside? Possibly - If she can sort out her love life with karate teacher Lee. As they used to say back in the glory days of print journalism – watch this space!
9th March 2019
I’m reading a terrifying book about the nightmare future we face as a result of climate change. It’s called The Uninhabitable Earth and, as the title suggests, author David Wallace-Wells offers precious little by way of comfort.
9th February 2019
When I first arrived in Ambridge back in the 1980s Brian Aldridge was by a big margin the wealthiest of all the farmers in the village. With about 1500 acres of prime farmland and no mortgage he was about as solid as the Bank of England.
2nd February 2019
Vet Alistair Lloyd is rapidly becoming a local hero. If he saves another sheepdog, lame pony or dairy cow injured in a farm accident he’ll surely be in line for some special honour from a grateful community.
19th January 2019
I’m intrigued by the odd behaviour of Brian and Jennifer Aldridge following their enforced down-sizing from a large and comfortable farmhouse to a small cottage next to Kirsty and Roy.