Price to pay for milk that doesn’t cost the earth

Last month the price of the white stuff in supermarkets was slashed. Should we be worried? Joan Ransley visits Emma’s Dairy to learn more about why we should think twice about the price we pay.

The family at Gazegill Farm
The family at Gazegill Farm

Emma Robinson’s friendly voice meets me as I walk into the milking parlor at Gazegill, a beautifully-located farm at Rimmington on the Yorkshire/Lancashire. She has just finished milking her herd of 60 shorthorn dairy cows. The milk is certified organic and costs £1.25 per litre compared to the bargain basement price of 44p per litre at most supermarkets. It is a big difference and it has brought me here to talk to Emma and her partner Ian O’Reilly.

Gazegill has been in the Robinson family for over 500 years. “We know some of the fields have not been ploughed for over 700 years which protects the diverse species. We put looking after the fish in the rivers, the birds in the fields, the hedgehogs in the hedges before profit. The Robinsons were peasant farmers and their neighbours thought them backwards for not keeping up with the times. The modern way of farming was to plough and intensify. But things have changed and the general public has started to want organic food produced with integrity and without a huge environmental impact. Farming has come full circle,” says Emma.

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The dairy herd at Gazegill feed on the ancient pastures for most of the year. “The composition and flavour of the milk varies according to the diet of the cows. As the flora in the meadows changes so does the milk. People do not think milk is a seasonal product but our milk is. Organic milk has a higher concentration of the beneficial long chain omega 3 fats than regular milk and it is produced in a way that is better for the cows and better for the environment.”

Emma and Ian’s day starts at around 5.30am. Emma rounds up the herd on a quad bike and takes the cows to the milking parlour. Milking takes an hour and half and another 30 minutes is spent cleaning. “Cows are like elephants and form strong bonds both with me and the other cows. I know each cow individually and they like to have the same routine each day. I milk again at 5.30pm,” says Emma.

After milking the whole family, including Jean and Tony Robinson, Emma’s parents, have a big cooked breakfast and plan the rest of the day before getting their three children to school, all in different places.

Oliver, the youngest is three years old and is taken to preschool in Downham by Tony and Jean who are both 74. Isabel , five, catches the bus at the end of the lane to school in Gisburn and Niamh, their eldest daughter is driven to Haworth.

“It is a logistical nightmare, says Emma ,“we couldn’t manage without my mum and dad’s help.”

Tony Robinson was born on the farm and took over the running of it when he was 40.

“Dad is the fount of all knowledge relating to the farm” says Emma.

Last week the machine that pasteurises the milk broke. By the time it was mended Emma had to work through the night to get milk to Organic North in time for delivery to schools in the north of England and Scotland. It sounds a gruelling schedule but Emma says she feels blessed to live the way they do. “I was told I would not be able to have children because I suffered with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare, life threatening disease caused by a serious reaction to antibiotics. So when I am milking the cows I can’t wait to get back in the house to see the kids. The work we do is an investment for the future. We hope the children will take on the farm when they are older.”

Not only do Ian and Emma run the farm, they run an education programme which Emma’s parents started in the 1960s. The farm has a classroom where children from nearby cities come and learn what is involved in rearing livestock to produce food. “It is the part of our work we really love, especially making real ice cream using our milk and cream” says Emma.

Do they ever get time for a holiday?

“It is the one part of our life I regret that we don’t have the time to take our children to the beach, or to football or to take part in any other activities. But there again when other children come to the farm they can see what our children have. They love the farm and have a lot of freedom.”

The cows at Gazegill live longer than intensively reared beasts and die naturally if possible. “One of our cows is 18 and has 14 calves and I still milk her. She has a really good yield even though she has three teats rather than the usual four,” Emma adds. Gazegill pasteurize and bottle the milk on the farm and produce up to 4,000 litres per year for private individuals and local schools including Bradford, Leeds, Halifax and Todmorden.

Dairy farming for Emma and Ian has not always been so idyllic. Said Ian: “We had a wake up call in 2008 when our milk buyer, the co-operative Dairy Farmers of Britain went into receivership. 1,800 dairy farmers, including us, lost their milk buyer over night and had to think of other ways to sell their milk. Our £27,000 member investment in the cooperative became worthless. We couldn’t just turn our cows’ milk off. We had to find a new way of selling.

“The only thing we could do was to pasteurize and bottle our own organic milk. We also decided to sell ‘raw’ unpasteurized milk directly to consumers.”

Only 78 of the 14,500 farms in the UK are licensed by the Food Standards Agency to sell raw milk. It is controversial but Ian says the risk of drinking contaminated milk from his cows is low.

“Our milk costs more because more effort is put in to producing it in a way that is sustainable for the farm, animal welfare and the health of the consumer.”