What is life really like as a dairy farmer?

Ellie Papuga, who has just working as a dairy famer.

Ellie Papuga, who has just working as a dairy famer.

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Billions of pints of milk have flooded the market, causing prices to plummet. So after another difficult year, Sarah Freeman reports from down on one Yorkshire dairy farm.

Every morning at 5am Ellie Papuga sets off from her home in inner-city Leeds for a dairy farm 15 miles away. Half an hour later she is generally ankle deep in mud as she begins the process of milking 250 cows. Afterwards there’s a long list of other jobs to do and she normally won’t see home again for another 12 hours. Every morning at 5am Ellie Papuga sets off from her home in inner-city Leeds for a dairy farm 15 miles away. Half an hour later she is generally ankle deep in mud as she begins the process of milking 250 cows. Afterwards there’s a long list of other jobs to do and she normally won’t see home again for another 12 hours.

Tom Rawson in his milking parlour at Thornhill Hall Farm, Hall Lane, Dewsbury.

Tom Rawson in his milking parlour at Thornhill Hall Farm, Hall Lane, Dewsbury.

The 25 year old didn’t grow up in a farming family, but she had an inkling from a young age that she wanted to work with animals and spent weekends volunteering on Tom Rawson’s Dewsbury farm before she was taken on full-time eight months ago.

“I’ve always had horses, so I guess the interest was always there, but not many people who grew up where I did end up working on a farm,” says Ellie. “I told the guy who owns the stables I use that I wanted to work in farming and it was he who introduced me to Tom.

“It’s physically hard - I’ve definitely got bigger muscles than I had when I started, but I love it. I love being outdoors, I love the responsibility and I love the fact that even though the jobs I have to do are the same, every day is different.”

Ellie’s commitment has been something of a godsend to Tom. The industry is not what it once was and finding reliable, skilled staff has become increasingly difficult. However, while he knows that his herd is in safe hands, this year has brought other problems. The end of March saw the abolition of milk quotas which had regulated the amount of milk individual European countries could produce. Ahead of the move there were fears it could lead to the market being flooded with milk and so it has proved.

In the seven months since the quotas were lifted, milk production across the EU and particularly in countries like Ireland and the Netherlands has increased by 2.8 per cent – the equivalent of more than two billion litres. The simple laws of supply and demand, coupled with a shrinking international market for milk, has seen prices plummet and it has driven many farmers to the brink.

“What have the last 12 months been like? You could pretty much sum it up in one four letter word,” says Tom, who began working on his parents’ farm back in 1999, milking just 50 cows. Now the herd is 560-strong and as well as the Dewsbury farm he also has a dairy operation in Lincolnshire.

“We will probably be around £360,000 down on where we were 12 months ago and talking to other dairy farmers that’s pretty standard. It’s been a very tough year, but we knew it would be. The removal of the quotas has created a bit of a free for all. With the milk prices having fallen a number of dairies in this country have taken the decision to up production. It has to be an individual decision and you could see why they would do it, but we have tried to keep a cap on it because long-term regulating milk production has to be the answer.”

There are currently just under 9,700 producers in England and Wales and according to the farming consultants Anderson’s, which produced its annual Outlook report earlier this month, this might well reduce by between 30-50 per cent within the next three to five years, if prices remain low.

Those which do survive, are likely to have to adapt, becoming larger and more efficient.

“We may well see an industry reduced to 5,000-6,000 dairy farmers, with an average herd size of between 250 and 300 cows,” said consultants Mike Houghton and Tony Evans who compiled the report.

“We’ll be ok,” says Tom. “We’ve adjusted our cost base and while there are probably good reasons to be pessimistic, I’m not,” says Tom. “I do believe there is a future for dairy in this country, otherwise I still wouldn’t be doing what I do. But we do have to get a grip on the situation and slow down the amount of milk which we are producing.”

It was response to the plight of the country’s dairy farmers that The Yorkshire Post launched the Clearly British campaign calling for urgent action to make it easier for shoppers to identify how they can support struggling British dairy farmers. At the heart of the campaign, which has already led to a groundswell of public support, is a plea to the European Commission to rethink its block on mandatory country of origin labelling on dairy products.

Without it, a pint of milk or a block of cheese can still bear a UK logo even if the milk has only been processed or packaged, rather than produced, in Britain. The inevitable confusion means it is difficult for shoppers to identify which products they buy benefit the home-grown dairy industry.

“There are a number of things on my wish list,” says Tom. “But up there would be a change to the current labelling system as it has the potential to make a huge difference to our industry. Consumers are pretty savvy these days and I have no doubt that if they had a clear choice between a pint of 100 per cent British milk and one produced thousands of miles away many of them would choose the former.”

The Commission has put up a brick wall saying that such a move would be both logistically tricky and expensive. However, while supporters say that while it might be difficult to enforce such a system for all dairy products, it should be possible to at least clearly label simpler products like milk, cheese and butter.

Adding his weight to the campaign, farming minister George Eustice said: “We have done it successfully on beef and on pork and on poultry, so if we can do mandatory country of origin labelling on meats I don’t see why we shouldn’t also be able to do it on dairy products.”

At the start of this month, Leeds-based Arla Foods UK, which is the UK’s largest farmer-owned dairy company launched its own White Wednesday campaign in the run up to Christmas. Focusing on the four Wednesdays in December and aiming to reach 40m consumers it was inspired, at least in part, by a YouGov survey which found that almost two thirds of shoppers would pay extra for dairy products if they knew the money would go back to farmers.

“We are lucky in some ways in that we are part of the co-operative of farmers that sell direct to Arla, so that does cushion things a little,” says Tom. “It’s a busy time of year, but that’s because we have a lot of cows and not a lot of staff. As an industry as a whole we struggle to find the skills that we need and long-term we will have to at least try do something about that.”

As for Ellie, well, even eight months of getting up before dawn hasn’t yet dissuaded her from a career in farming.

“My family think I’m a bit mad and my mum insists that if I pop by after work I have a shower first - she can’t stand the smell,” she says. “Ultimately I would like to be a farm manager. This is where I feel at home.”

If the industry could only find a few more Ellies it’s future might just be that little bit brighter.

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