Melanie McDonagh

The return of the milk round

The return of the milk round
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How do you help the environment and improve your quality of life? Why, buy milk in bottles. Some of us can remember them – foil topped, left outside the door, washed, then returned…a virtuous cycle which worked because it made practical sense. Life went downhill when the milk industry was deregulated in the 1990s and milk turned up in plastic cartons, homogenised and in supermarkets, and so it has remained, until quite recently. But the rattle of the milk van is returning to the streets in parts of London and elsewhere…things, folks, are looking up.

It was one of the great advances in human civilisation when we developed lactose to enable us to digest milk. And recent investigations, recorded in Nature Communications, on ancient human skeletons in Africa suggest that human beings have been consuming milk products for more than 6,000 years – interestingly, even before we developed the enzyme to break it down. If you herd cattle, sheep and goats, as we’ve been doing for even longer, it must be an obvious next step to use their milk. And the fact we did so before we had the enzyme lactose suggests that milk and milk products are sufficiently delicious to make us want them, even if they gave us indigestion. The rapid spread of the enzyme throughout populations suggests that drinking milk and eating yoghurt or cheese makes us big and strong, though it was to be some millennia before milk reached perfection in a nice cup of cocoa.

Turning from the grasslands of Africa to Morrison’s, the good news is that the supermarket is selling bottled milk in 11 stores, seven in Kent and another four around Sheffield, at 90p a pint. The milk is provided by local farms and the extra cost – 40p over the price of a pint in plastic cartons – will cover the cost of collecting and cleaning the bottles for re-use. Granted, a glass bottle has to be resued several times before it becomes a more efficient use of resources than plastic ones, but glass bottles can last a decade, and this initiative will remove about 40,000 plastic bottles a year from circulation. If you want the scheme extended to your area, ask.

But it’s also possible to have milk in bottles delivered to your door; an increasing number of companies do so. Ocado has milk bottles from Ivy Farm Dairy as part of its online shopping offer – that’s the company that supplies upmarket shops, like Fortnum’s and Selfridges with excellent Jersey milk.

Dairydrop works with local suppliers to provide milk deliveries, with the option of organic milk in bottles; that has the option of ordering through an app. Milk and More also works with an app and includes parts of London – and the milkmen aim to deliver by 7am.

Not every milkman takes empties. The Modern Milkman, however, does so. It’s a small company which matches customers with local suppliers, delivers three times a week and takes away the bottles to wash and reuse. Their app enables you to change your order up to 8pm the night before.

Bottled milk is, I think we can agree, a step towards civilisation but it leaves out of account the quality of the milk and the way it’s produced. I get my favourite milk at the Notting Hill Farmers’ Market from Hurdlebrook Farm, which does raw Guernsey milk. I cannot tell you how rich and good it is; actually, you can tell just by putting its rich creamy colour next to the anaemic white of supermarket milk. The cream is fabulous. And, being raw, viz, unpasteurised, the milk has good bacteria which the pasteurisation process destroys, and, now we’ve discovered our biomes, we know that’s a good thing, so long as it comes from a clean, well-run farm. (All of them are subjected to draconian Defra inspections.)

Sustainable farming at Mossgiel Farm in the Highlands

One of the reasons why veganism has taken off in the last few years is that there really are problems with parts of the mass market dairy industry: cows overproducing, raised away from grass for much of the year, given routine antibiotics. Organically produced milk in general has higher welfare standards than the norm, which is why it’s more expensive, but there are some small producers who take animal welfare very seriously indeed and their milk is what I’d give a vegan to show them that you can actually be pro-cow and a milk drinker. Some allow their cows to keep their calves for much longer than the norm (up to a week) but there are some excellent farms which take them away younger, but still judge themselves by the happiness of the herd.

One of the more conscientious, up in Scotland, is Mossgiel Farm, the area where Robbie Burns worked, which does home deliveries in Scotland and supplies a number of retailers. They are passionate about regenerative organic farming and they keep their calves (of both sexes) with the mothers until their natural weaning age, which they estimate at six months; they also allow cows to keep their horns. Oh and their glass bottles come with foil caps.

The bid to raise calves until weaning age with their mothers was spearheaded by Fiona Proven at the Calf at Foot dairy. She’s moved to Northamptonshire from Suffolk and she’s busy setting up a new operation and dairy parlour with the support of Countess Spencer (yep, Earl Spencer’s wife). She took the name from the old market term for a cow with a dependent calf and she’s trademarked the term so that anyone who uses it conforms to demanding welfare standards.

Her calves remain with their mothers for nine months, they’re milked once (rather than twice) a day and she is convinced that it’s 'less stressful for us and the cows are less busy and we’re less busy and they’re much happier'. She could sell far more milk than she produces but she wants instead for other farmers to follow her lead and for a network of micro suppliers to replace large scale dairy farms. In other words, she’s upending the model of dairying – 'yielding up all the time' – to smaller yields from happy herds. Right now she’s not selling but she has a waiting list of customers  and she’s keen to train other farmers in her methods (at present, she estimates there are 15 which are properly calf-at-foot).  I’ll be buying her milk when she’s back supplying customers nationwide.

Another farm where it must be a pleasure to be a cow is Smiling Tree Farm where Christine Page keeps Jersey cows quite literally in clover (as well as other grasses, herbs, wildflowers and hedgerows) on meadows and permanent pastures; they too get to keep their calves and they produce delicious milk. I’m going to be on their case for happy meat (rose veal and lamb) as well as milk. Actually, if I really were on the case I should be able to taste the difference between milk from summer grass, which is richer, and winter, which has a different character. You can’t do that with the stuff that costs as little as possible from a supermarket.

What, I think, we should be aiming for is a kitemark – a better version of the stupid little tractor scheme – which certifies that dairy products (and maybe meat) come from farms that conserve natural grassland and meadows and whose husbandry meets strict welfare standards. It wouldn’t be the same across the country – in the north, cattle stay outside in grass for a shorter period than in the warmer south – but it could be a guide for well-meaning consumers.

If you’re serious about the environmental and husbandry aspects of dairy farming, check out the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, which guarantees your milk and meat would never come from creatures fed soya, grain or manufactured feed. If you get your milk from them, you can look your vegan relations in the face; there is, my friends, another way.