High Hopes - the ups and downs of a Lancashire Dairy Farmer
PUBLISHED: 09:52 20 April 2015 | UPDATED: 09:52 20 April 2015
Stale bread for breakfast provided the spark that saved two Lancashire dairy farmers from going bust, writes Roger Borrell. Pictures by Kirsty Thompson
Manor House Farm
Claire Barber with some of the new calves on the farm
Claire Barber with some of the new calves on the farm
Claire and Richard Barber at Manor House Farm
Richard Barber walking up the lane with one of the herd
Richard Barber, Callum Champion (Apprentice) and Claire Barber
The High Hopes Herd at Manor House Farm
The sign on the wall at Manor House Farm tells you this is the home of the High Hopes dairy herd. It’s a name given to these smart-looking Holsteins some years back, but today it has never been more appropriate.
The Barber family, full of Geordie wit and quick-fire chat, were transplanted deep into the Lancashire countryside back in 2008. There, they followed a dream to run their own farm but it was to give them many more sleepless nights than they’d ever imagined.
‘Basically, we were being fleeced,’ says Claire. ‘We never quite had to eat hedgehog but it was a close run thing on a couple of occasions!’ Claire and husband Richard were among the many British farmers brought to the edge of extinction by the paltry price being paid for their milk.
Now they feel they have turned an agonisingly long corner – and they’ve even managed their first holiday in five years. Husband Richard takes a swig of tea and declares: ‘This year we might actually make some money.’
Optimism has been in short supply in the dairy industry and, with the obscenity of milk being sold more cheaply than bottled water, even the upbeat Barbers occasionally found the smile slipping.
‘The only thing we ever argued about was money,’ says Claire. Richard adds: ‘I know we farmers are good at whingeing - we can be grumpy and depressed, but I can understand the reason why. And I’m the eternal optimist.’
He adds: ‘Claire and I have a relationship where we support each other, we lift each other up when one is down. But that can be hard work and when you are both down and can’t see any road forward. You go into the kitchen for a breather and the bills have arrived - we are told we have to find £3,000 this month just to survive…well, you feel like turning around and walking back outside.’
Both have family history in farming and they each worked in different parts of the industry, more recently in the support sector with 9-to-5 jobs, weekends off and proper holidays. However, mad fools that they are, something inside them hankered after a farm of their own.
When Manor House at Claughton-on-Brock near Garstang came up for rent in 2008 they had a go, never thinking they stood a chance. However, the Claughton estate, run by Francis Fitzherbert-Brockholes, spotted a family bursting with optimism, people who would work their wellies off to make a go of it.
‘We are extremely grateful for the support he gave us,’ says 42-year-old Richard. ‘He is really passionate about what we are doing. The estate has shown a lot of faith in us.’
However, there was nothing he could do about ever-decreasing prices paid to the Barbers by one of the country’s big processors. Richard described the money they were being paid as ‘ludicrous’ and it meant having to sell some of the best animals to cover costs – a spiral that would eventually have resulted in them having to throw in the towel.
‘A defining moment came one morning when I was sitting here eating my breakfast,’ says Richard. ‘It was two crusts of bread - that’s all there was. Then a newsletter arrived from the milk processor telling us about the millions they’d spent on a new plant. The next moment a shiny new milk tanker arrived and I was sat there with two crusts. It felt like someone was slapping me around the face with them!’
They did something they’d never imagined doing. Driving through the night, they joined picketing farmers outside processing plants. ‘This just wasn’t us,’ said Richard. ‘But we were heading down a dead end. Basically, we didn’t know what else we could do.’
At 4am as they drove back from a protest, Claire decided they had to get out of their current deal and find a new way of working. She put together an impassioned business plan outlining the potential of the farm and their vision for a sustainable herd with high quality and animal welfare. She sent it to everyone she knew.
The timing was perfect. Another big processor, Wiseman Dairies, was starting to work with Booths to launch their Fair Milk scheme and Manor House Farm was one of four farms in the north invited to join. The pioneering Fair Milk pledges pay farmers a reasonable amount allowing them to invest in a stable, profitable future.
The market price is collected by an independent price comparison consultancy which monitors the farm gate prices of the major UK supermarkets. Booths ensure they are always paying their farmers more than their supermarket rivals.
Claire says: ‘This really has been life-changing for us. We haven’t dashed out and bought new cars but it has secured our future and the kids’ futures, and allowed some investment such as improvements on the farm and in the milking parlour which have resulted in our cows producing an increased yield of three litres a day.’
Richard said the price they received per litre had gone from 7p or 8p to 10p which might not seem much but it makes a big difference to a small farm, producing 3,300 litres a week.
It has allowed them to take on an apprentice, Calum Champion from Lancaster. ‘If it wasn’t for Booths, Calum wouldn’t be here,’ he says.
Edwin Booth, chairman of Booths, said: ‘Booths’ Fair Milk scheme is not simply a response to the current farming climate; we made a permanent decision to commit to paying our farmers a fair price.’
It would be nice to think others would follow suit because the Barbers are only too conscious of the fact that many other small diary farmers are still having sleepless nights.
During the last decade the number of dairy farmers in the UK has declined by 50 per cent. The main causes are falling milk prices and sons and daughters not wanting to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
The UK now has fewer than 10,000 dairy farmers - less than half the number in 2002. It’s the smallest number in living memory.
Price wars between the big supermarkets have resulted in dramatic falls in the price of milk. Recently, the farm gate payment slumped to around 20p per litre. A year ago is was around 33p. Despite this, farmers’ costs for feed and power have been rising.
A global glut of dairy products caused by exceptionally mild weather has also depressed prices.