Thursday, January 12, 2012

Milk, muck & NVZs

Cows poo... a lot. They also break wind a lot- which concerns some scientists. But the most pressing issue is the poo, and more specifically what we do with it.

Dairy cows typically spend their lives grazing the fields, all that grass is processed (and reprocessed) within the cows large and complicated digestive system in order to extract as many nutrients as possible. The byproducts of this process are methane... and fields dotted with nice big cow pats.

In the winter the weather becomes unfavorable for dairy cows, wet fields quickly become trampled and as the temperature drops our fields cannot grow enough food for the cattle- for these reasons dairy cows will spend a few months housed indoors. Here they are fed silage, given shelter, and providing they have enough room and suitable housing they are quite happy. The downside is that they produce a lot of poo... in a small area.

Our herd is cleaned out twice each day and the poo is gathered in a concrete-lined pit outside of the  cow’s shed and collected until we have the time (and the right weather) to allow us to transport it out to the fields to be spread. Of course the cows produce the same amount of poo as they would if they were outdoors, but a concentrated slurry of poo (and wee) spread over a relatively small area, on water-logged soil leads to run-off- as a result nitrates enter our waterways causing all sorts of problems. We have become more responsible when it comes to the use of fertilizers (another source of nitrate) but managing the distribution of slurry is now a contentious issue.

It wasn’t so bad when farms had smaller herds, they were often fed on hay (which led to drier poo) and small herds meant smaller muck heaps and less need to spread the slurry on such a regular basis. As the average herd size grew, so did the amount of slurry produced by individual farms- and nobody was aware of the damage we were all doing to our waterways.

Introducing NVZs...

To tackle the issue we now have a shiny new European Commision Nitrates Directive under which land that drains into water polluted by nitrates are designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones or NVZs. The implementation of the directive is being overseen by the Environment Agency and mandatory rules for farmers are being phased in across all NVZs- in short dairy farmers whose land is within an NVZ will have to securely store all of the slurry  their cattle produce between the months of October and March. The regulations will most likely (and rightly) come to encompass all the UK’s farmland over the coming years.

Our small herd of 70 dairy cows produce a lot of slurry- our small slurry pit is about 40 years old and our herd can fill it in about 6 weeks- finding somewhere to store 6 months worth of slurry is going to be difficult... and expensive.

We’ve consulted a lot of people to look into giant covered pits, massive metal tanks... even rubber bags- there’s no way around it we will have to invest at least £60,000. On top of this we also have long-needed to replace our milking parlor and carry out work on the housing- more investment.

In business terms £60,000 may not seem like a big investment- but to our business it is. In total each year we receive somewhere in the region of £108,000 for our milk. Producing this milk requires investment in silage production, rent, fertilizer, loan replayments, corn, water, electricity, machinery, veterinary bills and two people working all day, everyday. It may sound like a lot of money but milking is already being made unviable by those further up the chain.

The reality is our farm will probably be forced to close in the coming years. It’s something that’s already happened to thousands of small farms- and is likely to happen to those that remain. Our farm buildings will be converted to housing or holiday cottages, and fields that aren’t snapped up for building plots are likely to be absorbed into larger neighboring farms that are better placed to invest the money required. Market forces increasingly dictate that if you’re not able to produce a lot for a little you’re out of business. The quality of your product, how far it’s travelled, the welfare of the cows, or the impact of your farm on the environment don’t really matter. After all it’s only milk.

But all this is a bit depressing isn’t it- back to the poo.

Controlling the nitrates on our farmland is vital to protect our precious water. I’m not a fan of industries turning a blind-eye because sorting something out is the trickier option. But I am concerned about the repercussions of driving small scale farms out of business- not just for the individuals involved but also for our environment. I have long blogged-on about the role small farms could,  should and do play in preserving our dwindling farmland species but when it comes to NVZ rules I have to admit we have something of a catch-22.

In protecting our waterways are we inadvertently damaging the farmed environment by forcing our small farms out of business?  Is it right to help one facet of the natural world if doing so damages another? It’s an argument that crops up again and again- everything is a trade-off of sorts; from culling Ruddy Ducks to flying to an environmental conference. It’s a matter of weighing up impacts- it could be a long process, and to be fair in this case the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

We have to protect our waterways and to be honest NVZs are just one of the many things stacked against our small and medium farms. I only ask that we introduce the changes in a more sensitive way- particularly for those most at risk from going out of business as a result.

If we don’t do it through grants or subsidies (which are never popular with the public) then perhaps we should look at ways of ensuring buyers, supermarkets and the like are obliged to buy British milk produced in a nitrate-sensitive way as opposed to importing even cheaper milk from the far corners of the EU and beyond- places that don’t face the same levels of nitrate regulation- and yes, that should include the millions of gallons that goes into other products too.

It’s not about taxing imports or penalizing our neighbours. It just strikes me as a bit mad that we produce all this great food to high environmental and welfare standards (and spend millions implementing and policing its production). To then send it overseas and buy back cheap and unregulated food in its place. It’s wrong in lots and lots of ways.

It’s really just about helping our farmers by offsetting some of the costs their businesses face when protecting our environment. If we help our farms to comply they can produce lots of great milk, protect our farmland birds and our waterways.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cheap food- at what price?

Yesterday The Grocer magazine marked it's 150th birthday by studying the prices of select items in relation to the prices paid in 1862- the study made for some interesting reading and tells us as much about life today as it does about life 150 years ago.

Incredibly back in the Victorian era it was typical for a family to spend a third of their income on food- something unimaginable by today’s standards where our food 'spend' has been eclipsed by our soaring fuel bills, the cost of running a car, insurance and even leisure costs. The cost of the commodities we buy may have soared but in comparison the cost of food has  dropped markedly and we no longer have to consider remortgaging the house if we want to splash out on a mango. 

In the Victorian area, aside from the things that could survive weeks at sea- almost all our food came from these Isles- so besides things like Nutmeg we were pretty self sufficient. This was of course before many of the developments upon which modern farming is built- the land was farmed as intensively as possible but without the pesticides, fertilizers, medicines, machinery and vast fields of today farming and the production of food was much more reliant on more basic things such as man (and woman) power, resourcefulness, a decent horse, good weather and a lot of luck.

It had lots of downsides; a drought or a flood could send wheat prices soaring and make bread a greater luxury and the high costs meant millions went hungry, many were malnourished and some starved. A burgeoning and increasingly industrialised population needed cheap food and farming raced to keep up with feeding all those hungry framework knitters.

Our countryside still had lots of farmland birds- but during the Victorian era their populations were already in decline- the trade-off between our wildlife and our need to feed a  predominantly urban population had begun- and it’s rumbled on ever since. On the plus side our great-great-grandparents probably didn’t starve to death but on the downside you have to travel a long way to encounter a corncrake.

And that’s sort of where we’re at today- the decline of farmland species continues, but instead of paying a lot for food, we’re paying a little- and for many of us it still seems too much. Acquiring food has become less about survival and more about begrudgingly paying yet another household bill- it’s a notion perpetuated by the supermarkets where seemingly low prices are emblazoned across our TVs, magazines, billboards, buses and brains in an attempt to get us through the supermarket door.

But when you think about it, when you actually break down your shopping bill, our food IS cheap- so cheap we take it for granted, we over indulge and  we waste it. Anyone who’s ever tried growing a few vegetables will testify that it’s not easy and it’s not cheap- yet we rarely stop and ask ourselves how some of these intriguingly uniform vegetables can be grown, transported, clean, packaged and sold to us for so little- and yet STILL allow a bumper profit for the retailer. If we did stop and think we’d realise it’s the farmer who is forced to produce something for next to nothing and share the burden with our dwindling birds.

So this year, lets try to make a conscious effort to think about where our food comes from, all of it. We’re getting good at being suspicious of cheap meat, and some of us have got better at checking how far our haricot beans have travelled, where our chicken was reared, or how our fish was caught. It’s good to scrutinise, in fact scrutinising your food is a good thing for UK farmers. British food is produced relatively near to you, and to a high standard.

Farmers that are paid fairly don’t have to scrape a small profit by damaging our environment. They’re also better placed to reverse this long-standing trend and help out our  farmland birds. Best of all if we ask the right questions, make the right demands, and where necessary pay a little bit more we can still have inexpensive food, happier farmers, and an improved environment- something our poor mango-deprived forbears could only dream of.