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Hobby Farming

Rising prices, failing farms. The strange story of milk | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

The price of milk in the shops has risen roughly 20% in five years, from just over 44p a litre in 2002 to just over 53p in 2007. Yet the price paid to farmers has fallen.

In 1995, producers got 24.5p a litre for their milk; the average today is 18p a litre, which represents a loss of more than 3p on every litre...

Yields are typically 9,000 litres per cow per year, not the highest known since some farms have now broken the 10,000-litre barrier, but a long way above average and spectacular compared with a decade ago, when average yields were nearer 5,000 litres per cow. Thirty years earlier, average yields were 3,500 litres...

Kemble Farms heard last week that it will get a rise of roughly 1p a litre, but that will move it only from loss to break-even. Few believe the dairy industry's problems are solved.

"We either pack up or intensify further," says David Ball, one of the directors of Kemble Farms. "We've already increased output 15% in the last year. We could keep more cows, and get a further 25%. We're aiming for 10,000 litres a year per cow in the next few months. We would be driving every-thing, the animals, the plant, to the maximum. In a factory we are used to that idea of 24/7, but with animals and land there are other considerations. We resist treating animals like machines."

Kemble Farms has high standards of animal welfare - it is audited by RSPCA Freedom Foods. But as Mr Ball explains: "From the consumer point of view, dairy equals cows in nice pasture - and we're being driven away from that, until we follow the poultry world."

The irony for Colin Rank, one of the family that owns Kemble Farms, is that his cows drink water from a Cotswold spring that he could bottle and sell for 80p a litre. "We're giving it to cows and devaluing it by turning it into milk. Like all dairy farmers we could pack up tomorrow and do something better with our capital, but we do it because we have an emotional investment in the land and the animals. And we know there's a market for our product, if only the market worked."

It seems the market is working all too well, but farmers are resistant to listening to it. In far too many cases the derided "hobby farmers" aren't the ones buying up the old farms to keep the wife's horses on but are the farmers who carry on milking cows and working all hours in muck and poverty.


I was wondering if you could help me.

There seems like there is more Rapeseed growing than ever before - what's it being used for? Bio fuel? Cooking oil? Is it a nice earner? Grows bloody quick enough.

cheers and hope you had a good St George's.

TE: - Biofuels are an increasing use, also animal feed where it is replacing imported protein crops as well as for use in huma foods.

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