Monday, 7 March 2016

When the cows come home...

I've been wondering how to write this post for a while, or indeed, wondering if I should even bother writing it at all. But here's the thing: I've learnt over the past few years that I don't cope well if I bottle things up. So, here it goes.

By the way, if you've just stumbled onto my blog, this post is going to be all about dairy farming - if that's not your thing, by all means, feel free to stop reading and rejoin us later in the week when I'll be talking about slightly more normal things (well, normal for me) like writing and whatnot. But if I haven't lost your interest yet, grab a cup of tea and read on :).

The view from the fields: bringing the cows in for milking

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll have probably heard me mention that I grew up on a dairy farm. I return there every holiday to see my parents and to help them out on the farm. I love it  - it's what I've grown up with after all. In fact, until I turned 18 and moved away to university, it was the only life I knew.

This life as I know it will come to an end on Wednesday. My dad has taken the extremely difficult decision of selling up his dairy herd. Why? Because, quite simply, there's no point in carrying on.

If you live in the UK, you'll probably have heard over the past few years about all the blockades and protests and boycotts that farmers have been staging across the country. If you're not from the UK, here's a brief explanation: essentially, farmers are no longer paid enough to cover their production costs and, as a result, are being forced out of business. Here's a fun fact for you: it costs around 30p to produce a litre of milk - on average, dairy farmers are now being paid below 20p a litre. Supermarkets deliberately sell milk as a loss-leader in order to get consumers through their doors, which means they pay their suppliers less, which in turns means farmers don't even earn enough to cover their production costs.

It's insane.

It's actually quite fascinating in some respects - how will supermarkets cope when there are no more UK dairy farmers to supply their milk? What will happen when we're forced to import the very product that we could've quite easily have made at home? It genuinely fascinates me and enrages me in equal measure.

I could rant all day about the unfairness of the dairy industry, and the lack of safeguarding for farmers by both the industry and the government, but that's not what this post is for. Instead, I'm just reaching out to try and share a tiny part of my grief with you. Does it seem to strong to refer to what I'm feeling as 'grief'? Yes, and no.

I know that I am incredibly lucky - both my parents are alive and well. My dad is not being forced off his farm, in the sense that he owes the bank money (unlike a lot of farmers that we do know and are in that awful situation right now) - he's the one who made the decision to retire now, while he still can.

But what do you do when you feel like a huge chunk of your childhood - your life - has simply...gone? There is this tremendous sense of loss when you realise that the things that you've done every day for the past ten years or so (I'm counting from when I first starting helping out on the farm by the way, not from when I was born) simply won't be there anymore. Farming isn't just a job - it's a whole way of life. And that way of life is rapidly disappearing all over the country. And that breaks my heart.

A few of our cows enjoying the spring sun

If you haven't grown up on a farm or around animals, you may not completely understand why I'm so upset, and that's okay. I'm normally the same. If I read in the newspaper about a certain industry failing (e.g. steelworks, coal mines etc), I tend to either think, 'oh that's sad', or I think that the media is blowing things completely out of proportion. But speaking from the other side of the whole dairy farm debate, I can assure you that the media isn't blowing things up - it's real, and it's happening every day. One livestock auction near us currently has 15,000 dairy cows to try and sell because so many famers have been pushed out. Fifteen thousand. And who's going to buy them, if no one wants to be a dairy farmer anymore?

My dad's sale is happening on Wednesday. Luckily, I have a very understanding boss, who's allowed me the day off to go up north and support him and my family. I know I'm going to be a complete wreck at the auction - I've been to farm dispersal sales before and they always break my heart. To sit there and watch someone's life work in front of you, knowing that they probably didn't choose to sell up, and seeing the farmer's face fall when they can't sell their cows, or when their stock goes for a much lower price than you know it's worth - it's a whole new level of heartache. As silly as it sounds, when you've grown up with these animals, to see them being sold, knowing that you won't see them again in the milking parlour that night...it's just heartbreaking. I don't know how else to describe it to you. It's like losing a part of yourself.

Our bull, Alf

So, if you don't see me around for a few days, I'll just be taking a short break - after making a twelve hour round trip within the space of 24 hours (I'm back in work on Thursday), going through all the emotions of seeing my dad's cows being loaded up, and then sold at the auction - I'm probably going to be a tad emotionally unstable for a while. It's going to take some adjusting, but like I said, I know I am still incredibly lucky - my family is still here, they're all (reasonably) happy and healthy, and I'll be there to support them every step of the way. In many ways, it's not just an ending - it's the start of a new beginning too. Who knows what the future will bring?

A late evening summer's walk with the cows


If you want to do any further reading, here's an article from The Telegraph I read a few weeks ago that gives you a good picture of the state of dairy farming

Have you or your family ever gone through the heartbreak of losing or selling a family business? How did you cope? What do you think about the state of UK dairy farming? 

9 comments:

  1. It is definitely sad. The same thing happened in South Africa and is still happening. It is awful. Your grief is fully understood. It is okay for you to be sad. Seeing all your family, especially your dad, worked for being sold is horrible. I'm definitely wishing you and your family the best for Wednesday. I'm so sorry this happened.

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    1. It's so sad that this is happening all over the world. Thank you so much for your kind words, Murees x

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  2. Truly a sad situation. Heard similar problems with farmers in the United States. Over in Jamaica where I'm from over importing of fruits and vegetables have had a negative effect on local farmers. I understand that you'll be grieving for a while and I'm sorry that your father had to give up a livelihood he loves so much.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and for stopping by, Sheena. Farming can be such a fickle industry but it's such a vital part of the economy

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  3. In a way, I know what you're going through. I export vegetables to the UK in the UK off season, but supermarkets will do almost anything to push prices down, even at the cost of the people they buy from.

    It infuriates me.

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    1. I know how you feel, Misha! It's what I hate most about supermarkets - I understand that times are hard for people and we all need to make savings, but something's got to change so it's not to the detriment of our whole farming industry.

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  4. I'm so sorry for your father and your family. Tradition and hard work should count more than money. It's crazy to think of selling milk at a loss! The dairy farmers should have a union or something... But I'm glad you'll be able to be there for the auction and that your father doesn't owe the bank anything.

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  5. Sorry to hear about that. It is a whole way of life being changed. People take it for granted that they can go to the shop and buy a pint of milk, but they don't consider the economics of the situation. Hope you and your parents are coping well.

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