Home Farmer Feature on Gazegill ‘Raw Milk – a Real Treat from Bygone Times’
Food is political, but milk is extremely political. Farmers complain about the payment they receive for it, and the government doesn’t want to offend the farming community, but what the group farmers are complaining about includes supermarkets, and the government really doesn’t want to offend them. Supermarkets require milk as a loss-leader (together with bananas, apparently), and anything which interferes with their ability to sell it at a ridiculously cheap price narks them – presumably a significant rise in milk deliveries to the doorstep will work against this overall plan too.
The folks at Gazegill Farm in the Pennines have taken the unusual step of delivering both organic raw milk – a real treat from bygone times – and pasteurised non-homogenised milk, both as daily deliveries over a wide locality (as far afield as Leeds, in fact), and as an Internet product across the nation, packaged in sheep’s wool insulation to maintain a refrigerated temperature for up to 48 hours. I was looking forward to seeing just how such an operation might work, and equally for some fighting talk about the politics of milk distribution in the 21st century.
But sometimes you arrive at a place and appreciate that there is a wider tale to tell – a tale of a family which has farmed the same fields for over 500 years, and has now taken control of many of the factors affecting the quality and reliability of its produce; a farm which has enjoyed organic status since 1999 (although its principles have always been organic), and has taken charge of all the day-to-day jobs such as onsite butchering and retailing from a busy farm shop; and most recently has set up a care farm producing edible herbs and flowers which offers day-to-day activities for adults with learning difficulties, physical disabilities or mental health needs. In addition, the farm also welcomes school parties, youth groups and families to visit the premises, and has even converted a large building into a learning centre to enable people to reconnect with the food they eat, and it offers the chance of work placements together with events and seminars with external speakers.
At present they are working to develop their campsite to further enable external involvement with the workings of the farm, together with many other bold and innovative ideas which will enable them to do even more good work.
Although Gazegill Farm has involvements in many different areas, it still remains a working commercial farm with cattle, pigs and sheep, and polytunnels, which are used for the care farm’s production of edible herbs and flowers. They now sell packs of edible wild flowers from the farm, and use only their own farm-grown herbs when producing sausages for sale in the farm shop.
The day-to-day running of the farm is in the hands of Ian O’Reilly and Emma Robinson, although the previous generation is still very active, and their hands-on experience often proves invaluable, as no doubt will Ian and Emma’s when their own children take over. Talking with them makes it clear that their principal concern is the quality of the produce which leaves the farm, together with a broader concern for the diet of many people today – a result of the rock-bottom prices we are now prepared to pay for our food as a result of a downward drive in prices fuelled by a dramatic reduction in the quality of food originating from intensively run farms and food manufacturers prepared to buy from anywhere if the price is right. Remember the horsemeat scare not so long ago?
The provision of raw (unpasteurised, non-homogenised) milk is a point in question. In its homogenised and pasteurised state, milk is devoid of many of the positive bacteria which benefit our bodies – bacteria which are ironically being returned to dairy products by major manufacturers but in a much less natural way than nature intended. There are few arguments about the broader health benefits of raw milk, but of concern to some is the question of the bad things it might contain without the pasteurisation process. Research has, however, shown that of the seventy-eight or so farms which are licensed to provide raw milk, none have been recorded as the source of E. coli or any other health problem; perhaps because anyone prepared to take on the extra challenge of providing raw milk to the public is almost certainly concerned about the quality and reputation of their product.
Another safeguard is the strict regulation covering any farm retailing raw milk. Rulings range from a requirement that such farms use only mains water in the dairy, to a requirement that retailing is only done from the farm to the end-user without the participation of a middleman or wholesaler, and these are just some examples of the regulations applied. Scrupulous cleanliness and hygiene are certainly foremost in the minds of all at Gazegill Farm, to ensure that their product reaches the public in immaculate condition.
But Ian and Emma also look to the well-being of their herd to make sure that the product is the best possible. Their herd is not the usual Friesian stock, but rather rare breed dairy shorthorn cattle – the original choice of the British dairy farmer many years ago, and a producer of rich milk which most people today have probably not had the good fortune to try. The cattle are left to roam at their discretion, and Ian and Emma only intervene if the cattle make it clear they want human intervention. The livestock is also not fed a constant diet of concentrates to bolster milk production, so what is collected is produced as part of a natural cycle, and the cattle even more or less choose when to turn up for each milking session.
So, sourcing the product is well taken care of, but that’s only half the problem. In today’s market you really need to provide your product direct to the market with a minimum of fuss for the consumer, and that’s where the supermarkets have got most people – producers and consumers – over a barrel. Only Amazon has done a better job than the supermarkets of tying up all markets, and for most people the weekly pilgrimage to a store is now a permanent fixture. Consequently, any seller/producer has to have two aces up their sleeve – a cracking product and an almost effortless means of getting the product to you. Ian and Emma have covered the local area, with home deliveries; not by milk float, but rather by van; but because they are covering the Manchester, Leeds and Bradford areas, a speed of less than ten miles per hour would leave too many people without their delivery.
For deliveries further afield they have used the Internet constructively, selling quantities to cover a week or even a month to offset the inevitable higher cost of using a courier, but offering a greater quantity which will last for days if refrigerated, or even six months in a freezer. The packaging is innovative too – a sheep’s wool insulation pack which maintains a refrigerated environment for up to 48 hours, guaranteeing a fresh and even a chilled product for the recipient. The sheep’s wool is also totally natural, so is easy to dispose of and can probably be composted. This, however, is another ongoing headache for Ian and Emma, as they would like to recycle and reuse the packaging in the spirit of recycling and keeping down costs.
There is only one effective difference from the point of view of customers: sadly, deliveries cannot realistically take place before breakfast as with the traditional milk rounds. But that’s really a small price to pay for your extra-special pinta from an extra-special farm.
Reasons for drinking raw milk
* Raw milk is probiotic, for a naturally healthy gut.
* The enzymes are alive and enable a better calcium uptake.
* Raw milk contains whole fats, and no trans-fats like homogenised milk.
* Raw milk is a wholefood.
* It has a great taste that will really take you back.
Visit www.gazegillorganics.co.uk to find out more about this historic farm and how it is providing its raw drinking milk to a new and appreciative market in the 21st century. The farm is very welcoming and encourages visits from schools and organisations wishing to reconnect with the nation’s food production.
About the Author: Paul Melnyczuk
Paul Melnyczuk is editor of Home Farmer, and together with Ruth Tott is the founder of the company. His Ukrainian father and Austrian mother came over in the 1950s, and he was raised near Accrington (of Stanley fame) in Lancashire. With a degree in European Literature and a year spent living in Sweden, and a further 2 years in the Sudan, his background is rich and varied.