Britain’s raw milk business booms

Here’s a story which Ian Cumming wrote back in 2005 for the Ontario Farmer, about a year before the infamous 2006 raid on Glencolton Farms. It’s worth noting that the British model for the regulated sale of raw milk is one that a number of Canadians, including Michael Schmidt, later recommended to the Ontario government for serious study.

What is it about farming in "the old country" of Britain and Europe that makes their raw milk so much less of a dire health hazard than milk in North America? The horns? OR the traditions?

Food safety [in Britain] is strictly regulated but demand continues to be strong for farmgate milk sales. Much of the raw milk is sold to customers who pick it up directly from the farm.

It was 7am when the first customer for raw milk drove into the Window’s family dairy farm near Birmingham, England. The man took 100 gallons right out of the tank. It was for the Sikh temple in downtown Birmingham, which serves three meals a day for whoever wants one.

The customers keep coming – the elderly English gent, also picking fruits and vegetables from the shop shelves after his milk jugs were filled, the turbaned man with a beard and handle bar moustache, the housewife rushing, needing to be somewhere else.

They end in the dark of evening, with the man on his way home from work. He heads to the back of the milk house, plugs in the kettle and makes cups of tea which are delivered to the family and hired man doing chores.

All of the Window’s milk from their 110 cow Ayrshire herd is sold raw, along with on-farm produced cream and skim. Half of it is sold to customers who drive into the yard, the other half delivered in cans and five gallon plastic pails from the back of their pickup to Sikh food processing and retail outlets in Birmingham.

Known as Green Top milk, there are several hundred farmers in the U.K who can legally retail their raw milk, but no new raw milk retailers are allowed, although the existing producers can expand their retail quotas to any size.

Chris Window and his wife Hazel have been doing it for over three decades, with their daughter Lisa being part of the operation for the last dozen years.

They own both retail and normal production quota, allowing them “to shift between the two,” says Chris. This allows flexibility if there is a number of extra fresh cows, enabling him to call the milk transport to pickup surplus, he said.

At the moment “a 1,000 gallon a week customer” to whom Chris delivers nearly daily means all their milk is being retailed to their own customers. “He’s kept growing and growing,” Chris says of his best long-term customer. “But I knew if I didn’t start delivering to him I would lose the account because somebody else had made the offer to do so.”

The on-farm price for raw milk is 25 pence (50 cents) a litre with charges added on for delivery. While that price is 18 cents a litre more than a normal British producer – the price paid normal dairymen in mid December was 16 pence (32 cents) a litre – that is still less than what he was getting 10 years ago, noted Window.

“I’m just breaking even so it has to be pretty hard on those getting far less,” said Window.
Window sees no food safety danger or anything ironic to what he’s doing in a nation where you need government approval before plowing a field. Green Top producers receive strict on-farm inspections and have to adhere to standards over and above normal producers, he points out.

It is against Sikh religion, no matter where they are in the world, to drink any milk but raw, Window explains. He feels food safety is better protected when these customers are able to buy what they want out in the open, under full inspection, rather than buying raw milk under the table.

There is another ace in-the-hole which will allow Green Top producers to continue, noted Window. The Queen drinks Green Top milk and, with a phone call, had brought the bureaucracy to a lurching halt as it was drawing up legislation to ban raw milk sales several years ago.

While the three family members and one hired man handle all the farm work and retailing, other sources of income were sought with falling milk prices.

Boarding horses and storing 100 caravans (trailers) in a field are two such projects. “There’s more net income in storing 100 caravans with no work, than milking 100 cows with all this work,” says Window. “That’s not right”

Cull cows have been burned for the past nine years but the price paid under government BSE compensation was the same for Ayrshires as before, he says. The latest information has cull cows born after 1996 allowed back into the food chain in several months.

With one of the top Ayrshire herds in the U.K. – the top proven bull at present was in a corner box stall – the Windows sell 25 to39 heifers a year for about $2,000(Cdn) each. A top two-year-old at this year’s shows is pointed out. An offered price for $23,000(Cdn) had been refused.

Government regulations are increasing as well as the bite on the bottom line, notes Window. Government permission is required before plowing a field or putting it back into grass. Hedge trimming is allowed only in specific times of the year to protect wildlife, manure and fertilizer plans have to be submitted, land next to water cannot be farmed, hikers are allowed by law to walk across your land and the fourth set of ear tags for cattle ID have been introduced.

An exact herd inventory which corresponds with cull records has to be submitted every year.

“We now average 7.4 bureaucrats per farm,” said Window. A former boxer, “I have to let my daughter deal with them because I’m scared what might happen,” chuckled Window.

With British agriculture never being as unprofitable, 130 acres up the road, all in small grass fields and having to stay that way, sold for $3 million Cdn, pointed out Window.”

Once again, this story is by Ian Cumming, originally printed in The Ontario Farmer in December of 2005. Thanks to Ian for permission to reprint on the Bovine!

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