The cows, as TV’s Father Ted would put it, are not small but far, far away. They’re in the one part of the pasture at Birk Farm, off Ballam Road, which is dry. Dry-ish.
Farmer Andrew Pemberton almost needs binoculars to see them – and galoshes to lure them over to supplementary feed supplies.
It’s bad weather for milk cows. Grazing is still possible in one part of the field. The rest is a squelchy mess of standing water, mud, and associated excesses of 150 cows.
Not easy to find a leaf of grass to chew on there – let alone a nutritious mouthful.
Andrew cheers as the Environment Agency van pulls up outside. He’s urged the agency to pump out excess flood water and dredge a drainage system provided about 150 years ago by the local landed gentry.
“It’s woefully inadequate for needs of today with the weather doing its worst,” Andrew admits. “It’s like grazing on a sponge. The cows can’t get much nutrition out of the grass; it’s poor grass, such as it is, such as what’s left.”
National protests over supermarket milk price wars only go so far in highlighting issues facing local dairy farmers today.
The Fylde’s flatlands are prone to flood. One of the wettest summers on record has seen Andrew splash out more money on supplementary feed.
Cows need a decent and sustained diet to produce the rich milk Pemberton’s doorstep customers expect for their 55p pint.
They can get cheaper milk at the supermarkets – £1 for four pint cartons in some discount outlets – but Andrew contends: “Our 55p covers the fact we produce, process and deliver the milk here. You taste it 24-48 hours after milking. It’s not sat around days before being transported to a supermarket and sold.
“How often does supermarket milk go sour before its use by date? How many buy more than they need because it’s cheaper in volume? It’s false economy.
“Doorstep delivery is also the most environmentally friendly way of delivering milk – and much of it’s in recyclable glass too.”
Andrew can’t understand why customers balk at paying 55p a pint, delivered to their door, when they pay more for bottled water.
“That’s the paradox, fork out a fortune on bottled water when you can turn on your tap for the stuff, yet ignore all that goes into the making of the best British milk.”
In one barn, which should be full of grass silage for winter, half the stock has gone to bridge the shortfall in nutrients this summer.
The cows are also eating supplementary dried feed – the cost of which rises in winter.
“That mound of feed there cost £2,500,” says Andrew. “We’ll have to get more, and this barn should be full of silage. We’re running out. We’ve got to get the cows through winter. It all eats into your profit margins. I doubt we’ll break even.”
Pembertons Dairy, at Birks Farm, has been established for 150 years. Doorstep deliveries by self-employed drivers cover much of south Fylde. “We used to have 10 delivery rounds, now it’s down to six, and they have to do what the 10 did to make a living. Doorstep deliveries have decreased radically over the last 30 years but for the last 10 years, we’ve held our own thanks to canvassing, door knocking, and people realising if they don’t support us who will support them when they need deliveries in years to come?”
Andrew’s son Tom, 20, fifth generation farmer, fresh from the National Agricultural College at Cirencester, admits: “It’s hard to see the future although I’d hate to do anything else. This farm has been in my family for five generations now. I think a farm shop would be a good idea, and perhaps cutting out the middleman for beef – we have some beef calves but tend to sell them on.”
Dairy farmers have had mik prices cut by processors with further cuts proposed which could eat into production costs. Some farmers have literally poured milk down the drain in protest. The National Farmers Union warns the UK will become reliant on imports of milk produced to poorer welfare standards, undermining the vital role of dairy farmers in managing much loved pastoral landscapes.
“We don’t supply supermarkets not even when they come cap in hand, prepared to meet our prices, when there has been a shortage,” says Andrew. “We believe in selling a quality product for a fair price direct to customers.”
This week the Council for the Protection of Rural England urged shoppers to only buy milk from retailers who pay dairy farmers a fair price for their milk, with pricing mechanisms reflecting the cost of milk production.
Andrew concludes: “We’ve offered a delivery service for the last 50 years by milk van and before that, horse and cart, even butcher’s bike. It’s kept us ahead of the game. But as the multi-nationals get more aggressive it gets harder.
“The supermarkets have too much buying power, they know your profit margins, and pay just enough to keep farmers like prisoners, on a starvation diet, enough to get by on, but still hungry.
“Farmers are finding it harder to withstand the knockbacks. But if we go, much of the countryside goes with us – and everybody pays the price.”