Against the odds, small-scale farmers are learning new ways to survive in an age of industrial-scale competition
The family farmer
‘I can tell you a story about every cow’
Mary Ankers is back on the farm. In every direction there is a memory of her childhood. Everything had involved being outside. Jumping on hay bales, bottle-feeding newly born calves and sitting on the back of the trailer with her two older brothers during harvesting.
She left home 15 years ago to go to university before starting a career as a chartered surveyor. But as she married and thought about children, the “emotional pull” of being able to live and work on a farm again was too much. She’s now returned to take over the tenancy of the 100-cow dairy farm, near Chester, from her father.
But it is a very different dairy industry from her father’s childhood. Back in the early 1950s the UK had close to 200,000 dairy farmers. Today, there are barely 10,000. Her farm is small in an industry where herds of 500 are commonplace and the average has doubled to 150 in the past two decades.As farms get bigger, some are switching to indoor or zero-grazing systems where the cows never get to go outside. The grass and food is brought to them, with every mouthful rationed and monitored. It’s a world of milkbots where a cow is a number or tag, and success is measured in litres.Ankers keeps her cows out for most of the year and has no space or inclination to expand. But she’s in a minority. While the number of larger farms continues to grow, small-scale farmers are quitting. Those who survive are increasingly hobby or part-time farmers, who rely on another income to sustain their businesses.Farmers like Ankers are a last stand of the small-scale family farm – “Living on the farm and breathing it every day,” she says – the demise of which has long been forecast. She has worked hard to cut costs, improve fertility rates and get more milk from her herd. The result is a profitable business supplying milk on contract to a supermarket and earning enough to employ a full-time farmworker to help.But for how much longer will supermarkets prioritise milk contracts with small-scale farmers? Tesco, for example, has made a public commitment to supporting British producers, but nothing in terms of specific or continued support for small-scale farms.Ankers doesn’t have to look far to see the direction farming is heading. Across the hedgerows at the back of her farm is one of the biggest dairy farms in the country. The farm houses almost 3,000 cows, all of which spend their lives indoors and eat food brought to them by machines. It’s a slick-looking operation with dozens of farmworkers charged with keeping the milk [ … ]