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How plants could save the dairy industry

Environmental and financial pressure is piling up on British dairy farmers. Could the use of soil and organic crops ensure that dairy production has a sustainable way forward?

The Wildes have been farming and raising cattle on Bradley Nook Farm in Ashbourne, England, for 40 years.

Relying on EU subsidies meant their support was withdrawn after Brexit. Though they did the work and achieved their goals, they are stuck with a loss of income.

This is a growing concern among farmers, who produce 61% of Britain’s food and provide employment to four million people. Environmental concerns and the loss of EU subsidies are threatening livelihoods, putting some on the brink of collapse.

The Wildes found Refarm’d, a programme helping dairy farmers transition to plant-based farming. Rather than pushing farmers into unchartered territory, the international programme guides farmers seeking help.

‘We’re giving them another solution and handling the logistics, customers, and products,’ says Geraldine Starke, founder and CEO of Refarm’d. ‘That means very little investment from their side and barely any risk.’

After Starke and the Wildes formed a partnership in 2019, the couple started producing oat milk. ‘It’s key these first trials work so we can put this out there and show dairy farmers they do have a viable second option,’ says Starke.

Refarm’d has struggled to get UK-based dairy farmers onboard, mainly due to the prevalent farmer-animal bond. ‘But we kept 17 of our cows for grazing when we stopped dairy production in 2018,’ says Katja. ‘This programme doesn’t change everything because the herd and the daily routine of looking after them remains.’

Following an FOI request, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board said the number of British dairy producers in 2020 dropped by a fifth last year, yet milk production is constantly rising.

The Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reported an 8% rise in greenhouse gases from the industry during the past decade. From this, Defra indicated that dairy farming is becoming more intensive.

Dairy farmers are no strangers to this issue. In a survey carried out by Thred, 76% of dairy farmers believe their work has negatively impacted the environment. But many explain they don’t have the right land, money, or expertise to transition.

‘You have to give up on family tradition and heritage over several generations,’ Starke says. ‘Doing something else when you have done that your whole life can be complicated.’

Last November, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) named plant-based diets the best way to mitigate global warming. In Thred’s survey, many farmers expressed anger over this, with some blaming veganism for their crisis.

‘Farmers are struggling more and more, and they put the blame on vegans because veganism is increasingly popular and sales of [cow’s] milk are declining,’ says Starke. ‘They feel attacked, misunderstood, and unsupported.’

Unsuitable land aside, changing what you farm takes a lot of investment in time and money.

With Brexit, farmers lost Common Agricultural Policy funds, which gave farmers a reason to diversify their crops, maintain meadows, and promote biodiversity.

‘I’m glad we left Europe,’ says Wiltshire-based dairy farmer Peter Gantlett. The EU’s subsidies were constantly changing, causing market fluctuations, and this impacted farmers hugely.

‘I couldn’t see it ever changing or improving, so I voted out,’ he adds. But because he rents out space for events and profits from a solar panel park, Peter is one of the few who can ensure financial stability.

‘It’s a little scary,’ he concedes. ‘A lot of my colleagues don’t know how to survive without the subsidies.’

In 2020, the UK government provided £2.85bn of support to British farmers. Defra says direct payments of up to £30,000 will be halved by 2024, and anyone receiving above £150,000 could see a 70% cut.

The agricultural industry has expressed concern about the implications of Brexit, mainly in three areas: increasing production costs, weaker animal health and environmental standards, and market access.

Starke believes this pressure will push farmers to transition: ‘If they’re faced with bankruptcy, they no longer have 20 years to think about it.’ But even the thought of such financial sacrifices is difficult.

‘They’re in debt, and they simply can’t add more debt to this,’ she adds.

David Finlay’s Ethical Dairy farm, based in Castle Douglas, Scotland, is one example of a possible middle ground.

‘Our objective is to replace the prescriptive, interventionist systems of control, with those of a better understanding of natural processes,’ David says.

The farmer has been producing milk and cheese for decades. Five years ago, in light of environmental concerns, the farmer moved away from traditional milking methods, and has since cut his greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50%, doubled the productivity of his cows, and increased his biodiversity fivefold.

In 2017, the CCC revealed that ‘an estimated 28 million tonnes of CO2 and other carbon gases were removed by vegetation in the UK’. This underlines the critical role soil and vegetation could play in reversing emissions.

‘More biodiversity means healthy and fertile soils, which will be more resilient to events of climate change,’ says Fernanda Aller, a member of the British Society of Soil, who says that food can become more sustainable if what it grows in is made more fertile.

Finlay says he was ‘brainwashed’ into believing he needed chemicals to grow crops: ‘We were applying over 100 tonnes of fertilisers and thousands of gallons of pesticides, which were polluting our air, soils, water, crops, animals, food, and ourselves. That is Earth-shattering.’

Pointing to a patch of bare farmland, cloaked by Scottish fog, he adds: ‘Now, we’re trying to prove we can produce food — even on this land — which is just rock and a thin layer of soil.’

The Ethical Dairy farm processes all its slurry, urine, and silage through an anaerobic digester, which is turned to compost and powers the farm.

Apart from aiding cheese and milk production, the energy is used to heat the cow parlours. Finlay says these natural methods make the land and crops respond much more productively and give the cows more freedom.

Known as regenerative farming, Aller says the methods use animals to reconstruct forests or soil and sequester carbon.

She adds: ‘Manure is good for the soil, but bad for the environment. The microbes living in the manure are alive, and as they break down, they release carbon and nitrogen.’

She likens this to eating pasta every day: ‘You’d have gut issues. But if you grow something else every couple of years, that’s better for the soil and the environment.’

The Wildes use an organic system, using green manure and growing crops, which bring up nutrients from the deep soil.

‘This method improves the fertility and structure, reducing the need for pesticides,’ affirms Aller. ‘Farmers should return to using traditional grains.’

By 2026, the Wildes want their plant-based farm to be a viable business, providing local employment.

As well as producing fruit and vegetables, tree products, nuts, and berries, they also hope to transform their old farm buildings into a vegan holiday destination. Jay explains that the government is encouraging new ways of farming.

‘There are people wanting agriculture to change,’ he says. ‘And for anyone who shows a will to change, the support is there already.’

 

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