Q&A: How free-range milk can help struggling dairy farmers

The UK’s first free-range branded milk was launched in July. Under the Pasture Promise label it aims to secure farmers a premium price for grass-based dairying..

Farmers Weekly talks to founder Neil Darwent about jumping off the commodity treadmill.

What’s the Free Range Dairy (FRD) Pasture Promise label all about?

The idea is to promote a defined way of farming. Seasonal grazing is still what typifies British dairy. What Free Range Dairy exists to do is educate [consumers] about the value that brings them and everybody involved.

We want the public to realise it is the farmers who deliver the value. 

See also: Retailer claims fair farmgate prices see milk sales surge

That’s the big picture, but how is “free range” defined?

The core standard is a minimum of 180 days and nights grazed. When we talk to the public we talk about six months.

Within that 180-day timeframe there is an allowance for a 14-day transition period.

Over and above that we have no wish to compromise the welfare of the cows. If extreme weather hits – such as heat or flooding – we allow farmers to apply for a derogation. 

Where did the idea come from?

As someone involved in an increasingly intensified dairy farming industry, I saw other sectors were pulling back from the principle, like with free-range eggs.

Although dairy had not reached that level I felt it might go that way and I was concerned we might turn the public off our product.

Free Range Dairy branded milk

“We want to build a model outside the mainstream and then show it is working and in operation”

Neil Darwent

I felt by clearly defining a more sustainable, less intensive farming system for producing milk, we could bring value.

I got to understand the concerns of the welfare lobby and thought, why are we dismissive of their concerns and why do we not listen to what those concerns are? 

You are not another processor or milk buyer, so what do you do?

FRD is not buying milk ourselves but facilitating opportunities with processors and farmers. As a community interest company, any membership money has to stay within the company for further promotion of our social mission.

We want to return a 5p/litre premium to a farmer over and above average milk prices.

We can’t fix the price of free-range milk in the marketplace; what we can do is guarantee a premium by agreement. 

You’ve got 35 members at the moment with nine farmers involved in pilots. What’s the latest?

We are looking to try and grow sales. [For one pilot] we have set out a timetable to deliver the full 5p premium over the period of 12 months, starting in August.

We sat down with [a processor] and farmers and looked at what we needed to make it a viable proposition for them all.

It does require [more] money but we are going to go out there and say why it is worth more. We are not just pleading for farmers to get more money than they already do.

I am going to try and get more farmers to join us and then hopefully show the industry that we do have a significant pool of farmers in the UK capable of delivering free-range milk.

We need farmers to come forward and help us grow the opportunity.

Those standards won’t suit all of the UK’s 13,000 dairy farmers. What’s the potential for free-range milk?

When I talk to farmers about free range, a lot say they do that anyway. A significant number graze six months of the year.

I would say we could get at least 2,000 farmers accredited but if we get 500 that would be terrific.

We are not only looking at liquid milk, we are looking at cheese and butter and everything else. But I think the starting point is liquid milk because it has the most tangible value.

Is labelling some milk as free range an implicit knock to milk produced on other dairy systems, particularly housed units?

I don’t think we are out to knock other systems. But we should not be prevented in the industry from trying to point out positively the values in what we are doing.

We have been failed miserably by the commodity market we find ourselves in. And if we do not differentiate our farming systems and explain the value in them we are never going to escape that.

The onus falls on people running housed systems to actually promote what they are doing.

The industry has been very fragmented ever since deregulation. It is [already] divided by the haves and have-nots on supermarket contracts. We also have those that are organic and those that process their own milk on farm.

I understand the stick-together messaging that is going on about trying to promote British dairy farming. But let’s engender positive competition.

We are being forced at the moment to compete with each other on price and the only way we can fight back is to add value.

Free Range Dairy and Neil Darwent

  • Free Range Dairy (FRD) network launched in July 2014
  • Pasture Promise label needs farmers to graze cows 180 days and nights a year
  • Levy charged on using label goes back into promotion and farmers pay membership
  • Aims to deliver 5p/litre premium to farmers
  • First free-range milk launched in July 2015 through Stephensons Food and Dairy in Lancashire
  • Neil Darwent previously managed dairy herds on both intensive and more extensive systems
  • FRD community interest company means all monies must be used for social mission
  • Not a milk buyer, FRD links up with farmers and processors who want to sell under the Free Range Dairy label

Does the public care about dairy farm systems at the moment?

We do not want to be responding to criticism. We should be taking a proactive stance on this.

[European co-op] FrieslandCampina is offering a premium for farmers who graze their cows. Grazing comes under their sustainability criteria.

It is not high on consumers’ agendas now but it is being raised by animal welfare organisations and the tabloid press. Look at the stories there have been and the big backlash.

We also have the rise of the ethical consumer, so people are asking questions. Things like the [debate over] the use of antibiotics – that is only going to grow.

I am not saying Free Range Dairy is perfect.

I am not saying we are better farmers than anyone else. But consumers are increasingly informed. 

The supermarket price war seems to show shoppers only care about price, though. Will they buy into this premium product?

Consumers are willing to pay more, knowing that more goes to the farmers.

What people say and do can be different things. But I still think that if we fail to do anything that defines the value in our milk we have no option.

We are tied into the commodity treadmill that is killing farmers right now.

Free range is a really simple message and consumers get it. We need to capitalise on that like the egg industry has done. 

How can you hope to fight back against the big processors and retailers?

It suits the supply chain to have milk just labelled as milk because logistics are king. The more white stuff they can put through a big plant, the more efficiently the plant runs. That’s a real culture problem.

Having said that we have had interest from a couple of big retailers. We do not want this to be just another brand for the supermarkets.

We are told the retailers will deliver what the consumer wants. Right now the retailer is stifling the ability of the consumer to pay a fair price.

We want to build a model outside the mainstream and then show it is working and in operation.

This is another reason I say to farmers selling to other processors, “Put your hand up, say you are a free-range farmer, so you can go back to those processors and they have a few hundred guys who can deliver free-range milk.”

Cow in a field with Free Range Dairy milk

©Tim Scrivener

Dairy is in a crisis right now. Most farmers are losing money at current prices. What’s your answer?

This weekend, a hundred people could go into a major city and talk to the people about what is great about dairy farming.

We need every man and his dog. People want to meet a farmer, someone who can tell them about his cows and his fields. It could be a really good PR job.

We have elected representatives but the grass-roots movement could be huge. It is a long-term job, but there are some things we could do as farmers to start getting people talking about milk in a positive way.

What’s your vision for the future of British dairy?

I would like to see new businesses start up, new entrants coming into farming with scale not a prerequisite for people getting involved. And we could see returns through innovation, local markets and niche product development.

If farming is going to flourish it has got to allow more people in. It has to get ambitious entrepreneurs in without the capital to build a 1,000-cow dairy unit.

When we lose small farms and everything is being pulled up, it is at our peril. It is our heritage. Not just farmers’ sons’ but the public’s.

I might be yearning for yesterday but I believe that sort of future will deliver what our nation needs: good sustainable food from farming, with money back into the economy.