A Year on a Free Range Dairy Farm

By Jenni Hobbs, The Hobbs family at Barhouse Farm.

Free Range Dairy | StarI can’t believe its December, the year has flown by as it usually does, but this has been an unexpected year with many changes good and bad.

The year started with a meeting organised by Free Range Dairy Network at Cotteswold Dairy, the dairy we supply with our milk. We were chosen because we meet their Free Range Dairy standards and they wanted us to join their Free Range milk movement and label our milk under the Pasture Promise logo. It was an exciting meeting for us and a boost the dairy industry desperately needs and the opportunity to bring real choice for consumers who want to ensure that they know the provenance (in our case from just 4 farms in Gloucestershire) of their milk. Sometimes I feel that we have a great product that people want to buy, consumers say they want milk from cows that graze but it’s the bit in the middle causing the problems.

Free Range Dairy | FarmWe’re really proud of our farm. Jerry’s father milked cows before us and we want one day to pass on the business to our children but unless milk is valued more, farms like us are going to continue to go out of business. Dairy farmers just quietly get on with the job of producing milk 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We don’t think about getting out there and telling people about what we do, we generally leave that to the dairies and other industry leaders. But talking with Carol and Neil from Free Range Dairy Network we knew the best way to get people to understand about free range milk is to get them down on our farm.

We ran five events but the first one stands out because we were all a little nervous, what happens if no one turns up? I was cooking, Jerry my husband and Alice were busy tidying up the farm and buildings, and I roped in my family to help with flowers, cook food and even Carol gave the carpets a quick once over with the vacuum. Then the people started arriving and before we knew it we had over 50 people turn up. It was eye-opening for us as well, our visitors (chefs, restaurant owners, coffee distributors, supermarkets, hospitals) all wanted to visit our farm and were excited to see the cows. All the food I took two days cooking seemed to disappear in minutes but everyone had a fantastic day and they could really feel the passion we all have for the Free Range milk movement.

Free Range Dairy | Alice HerdswomanOur cows or the girls as we call them, mean so much to us. They are with us from birth, and we know them, their characters, their mood-swings and habits. We want to ensure they continue to have the freedom to graze outdoors in the fields and make great tasting milk. When we made the Cow Turn Out film in April things were looking so bleak for us, we weren’t sure if that would be the last time we’d do that on our farm. The dairy crisis seemed to show no signs of stopping and with milk prices so low we were losing money every week. We know that it’s not doing to happen overnight but working together Free Range Dairy is giving us hope for the future.

Christmas for us is still about the cows. Everyone is up early to milk them and make sure they’re happy. The cows enjoy having the parlour decorated by Alice, our herdswoman – if it’s cold we have to spend an extra hour or two ensuring all the taps, troughs and pipes are defrosted and running well, they may not enjoy sherry but they have to have many litres of water at their disposal, 24 hours a day. Alice will have Christmas songs playing on the radio for the girls to enjoy too.

Free Range Dairy | ChickensEveryone who’s working on Christmas will have a shorter day, especially if everyone can ‘muck-in’ so we can all have our Christmas dinner together (which is the absolute highlight of the day) with an extra half an hour to sleep it off! We would love to go to church on Christmas day but with so much to do, it’s always impossible. The chickens will be clucking around the farmyard as normal, but they do have nice long sleeps during winter with the shorter days. Farmhouse cooking isn’t the same when you don’t have your own eggs produced by free-range chickens. I rescued them from an intensive chicken farm in the springtime and they have blossomed, I absolutely love having them around. They are part and parcel of my life and I wouldn’t be without them. Even the dogs get a little something from Santa as well.

Christmas time is always a time I look back over the last year and this one has been the worst I can remember (and there have been quite a few in the last two decades) for low milk prices. If it hadn’t been for the support of friends, family, the bank and Free Range Dairy Network it would have been so much worse. Farm incomes have fallen through the floor and more than ever dairy farmers have made a loss. We’ve seen neighbours and friends go out of business this year and we will remember them as we sit down to our Christmas dinner.

We hope that the Free Range Dairy initiative which we have been working hard to push out to the wider community will add real value to family farms, ensuring these girls will continue to enjoy their freedom and to bring the best and kindest milk to the market. But the price of milk really needs to reflect the real cost and hard work that’s goes into producing it.

My wish for 2017 is for consumers to demand a more informed choice, clear labelling like the Pasture Promise and allow farms like ours to survive in the future. So many people have enjoyed visiting our farm and seeing what we do, we are certain that we are doing the right thing by continuing to farm this way. We may have lost money this year, but we have clear consciences knowing that our girls are happy.

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