A lifeline for dairy farmers?

White & wild

by Charlie Pye-Smith

"It's not a matter of our farm going steadily downhill," explains David Shaw with a wry smile. "We're going bankrupt, fast. Or at least we were. What we're hoping now is that White & Wild milk will save us."

We're sitting in the kitchen of Croft Head Farm while the rain beats down on the rolling Ayrshire countryside outside. It has been a poor summer, but the weather has been the least of Shaw's worries. Today's milk prices are so low that they don't even cover the costs of production. Some Ayrshire farmers are getting a mere 12p a litre - at least 8p less than the break-even price. The 40-odd farmers who supply Sorn Milk, a company run by Shaw, are faring rather better, and currently getting 16.2p a litre, but they are still in trouble. If milk prices remain this low for much longer, then some may go out of business. "The extra 3p which our farmers will get for selling White & Wild could make all the difference," says Shaw. "It might even take us into profit for the first time in years."

David Shaw
David Shaw

If White & Wild milk does take off - it is still in the pilot phase - it will not only save farmers like Shaw from bankruptcy, it will also provide a tremendous boost for farmland wildlife. Various public sector agri-environmental schemes pay farmers to adopt wildlife-friendly practices. This is the first private sector scheme, and its fortunes depend on British consumers. If significant numbers are prepared to pay a bit extra for "Milk on the Wild Side," then it will succeed. If they are not, it will fail.

White & Wild milk is the brainchild of Ken Whitley, the managing director of Agritrade Direct, an agricultural supply company. "Several years ago," he recalls, "the Sorn Milk farmers said: 'You're doing a good job saving us money on our inputs, but can you help with the milk prices? They're abysmal.' So I went away and thought about it." Whitley realized that if farmers were to get a better price for their milk, they needed to tap into a niche, to produce something that was more than "white stuff in white containers." There was tremendous public interest in wildlife, which had suffered serious losses as a result of intensive farming. Could dairy farmers, wondered Whitley, be encouraged to improve wildlife habitats, and get a premium for doing so? Whitley floated the idea with the Sorn Milk farmers, and they immediately took to it. "We saw this as a lifeline for family farms like ours," recalls Hugh Woodburn, who with his two sons farms 470 acres of good dairy country in the heart of Ayrshire.

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Aiding wildlife

This is how the scheme works. Farmers who agree to supply White & Wild milk must commission a Whole Farm Conservation Plan, which is prepared by advisors from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG). The plan outlines measures they must undertake to help wildlife. These might include fencing off hedgerows, streams and wetland areas to protect them from grazing; reducing the use of artificial fertilizers; creating ponds; changing the methods of cutting grass to avoid killing hares and other wildlife. Farmers who join the scheme must be willing to devote at least 10 per cent of their land to wildlife management. The exact nature of each plan depends on the farm itself, and is guided by the biodiversity action plans that lay out priorities for the restoration of habitats and wildlife for each county. Farmers who comply with the scheme receive a premium of 3p a litre.

The credibility of the scheme rests on the involvement of the Wildlife Trusts, whose logo appears on the milk labels. "We see this as a very exciting venture," says chairman Simon Lyster. "It uses the market to encourage farmers to conserve wildlife." The Wildlife Trusts receive 2p for every litre of milk sold, and this goes towards their conservation work.

white & wild

The farmers involved in developing the scheme are convinced that it will yield serious benefits. If David Shaw sells all his milk as White & Wild he will get £200,000 over the 14-year life of the plan drawn up by FWAG, around £32,000 of which he will spend on fencing off hedgerows, planting trees and copses, and other conservation work. This works out at an extra £12,000 a year for a farm with 100 cows.

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A win-win situation

Hugh Woodburn, with 220 cows, would earn more than double this. "If milk prices stay as they are, this will take my enterprise into profit," says Shaw. Unless British farmers can collectively agree to reduce production, which is highly unlikely, and unless dairies and retailers agree to pay more than the market price for milk, which is even more unlikely, then milk prices will remain as they are: pitifully low. Survival, in Shaw's view, is about creating a niche, adding value. White & Wild does that.

Over the past half century we have lost 95 per cent of wildflower meadows, and 40 per cent of hedgerows, and populations of once common farmland birds like skylark, lapwing and turtle dove have plummeted. Intensive farming has been largely to blame, and Lyster believes that if White & Wild takes off it could restore at least some of the losses. "There is every reason to believe that White & Wild will lead to considerable increases in biodiversity," he says. "This is a win-win scheme: good for the farmers and good for the environment." Providing, of course, that the public buys into the scheme. Indeed, this is the tricky bit.

White & Wild milk was launched on 16 April 2002, with Sainsbury's agreeing to sell the milk on an exclusive basis for a trial period of three months. "We liked the sound of the scheme," explains chief milk buyer Finn Cottle. "It fitted in with our environmental strategy of encouraging greener systems of farming." Six weeks after the launch, Cottle feels that it is still too early to judge whether White & Wild will be a success. "It hasn't stormed away," she says, "but we've found that a small percentage of customers are prepared to pay the premium for White & Wild."

So far organic White & Wild, bought in from an organic cooperative, has sold in roughly equal quantities to conventional White & Wild. Cottle is unsure whether this means that existing buyers of organic milk have shifted to White & Wild organic, or whether new buyers have decided to go both White & Wild and organic at the same time.

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Selling a service

According to Cottle, the milk has sold well in those stores where it has been promoted to the public by members of the Wildlife Trusts. When Simon Lyster and his children handed out leaflets in a Wimbledon store, and explained the virtues of White & Wild to shoppers, the milk rapidly sold out. "All the indications are that White & Wild sells really well when it is positively promoted," says Lyster. "It could become very big indeed. But someone will have to spend serious money on marketing." The Wildlife Trusts are not prepared to put funds into marketing, and it remains to be seen whether Sainsbury's - or other retailers who are said to be interested - will give White & Wild the push it needs.

If White & Wild fails, it will not be for lack of ambition on the part of its promoters. Whitley suggests that a 1000 farmers covering a third of a million acres could supply White & Wild milk before too long. David Shaw is even more ambitious: he would like to capture 5 per cent of the UK market. "The public can't expect us to look after wildlife for free," says Shaw. "If they want milk that comes from family farms where livestock are well treated and wildlife is encouraged, they won't get it by buying the cheapest products on the supermarket shelves." The White & Wild premium is not a subsidy, as most agri-environmental schemes are. Rather, it is a payment for services rendered, with the consumers buying change for the better.

Charlie Pye-Smith

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Posted 18 Oct 2002

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