I think an important dimension of debates about the future of livestock farming, and farming more widely, is what give people’s lives meaning, purpose and joy. I wrote previously about how grazing was seen in Ireland and the UK in terms of economics, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.
This last while, I've been chewing over the value of the word 'natural' in debates about agriculture. In farmer and stakeholder interviews about the ethics of cows staying indoors all year round, the word 'natural' has been coming up again and again. It is however a notoriously complicated and thorny word, with several meanings. Natural can mean the opposite of artificial: something that is self-generating and doesn’t depend on human interference, like a forest or an animal. There’s the idea of ‘natural purpose’: what humans or animals are meant to do because they evolved that way.
This morning I cycled to my friend’s house to work there as part of her extended household. At the roundabout I used to pass every day on the way to work, it suddenly felt odd to be outside. The familiar location made me think of pre-pandemic times so my mind automatically questioned whether this activity from the past was currently okay. You forget what the rules of being outside are, on a visceral level. The pandemic has changed our relationship with ‘outside’ and ‘inside’.
The ‘Cows eat grass, don’t they?’ project is a social sciences project exploring the future of grass-based, higher input and indoor dairy systems in the UK and Ireland. The project runs from 2018-2021 and is funded by the British Academy. 19 interviews were carried out with people working in the dairy industry in Ireland, including 11 from industry, 4 from academia, 1 from an NGO and 3 from government. 19 interviews with dairy farmers in Leinster and Munster were carried out. 26 industry documents were analysed.
January is a good time to interview Irish dairy farmers: the majority calve in spring so they’re in the middle of a relative lull when milking has stopped before the cows calve. (There are also lingering tins of Christmas biscuits for sit down interviews.) The weather was mercifully mild and I carried out 20 interviews with farmers who very kindly gave up their time for the ‘Cows eat grass, don’t they?’ project in Louth, Meath, Kildare, Cork, Limerick and Kerry.
The following is a "poem" about the future of dairy farm size and ownership structure in the UK and Ireland. It's comprised of direct quotes from interviews with key stakeholders and document analysis in both countries. You can read more details about the data collection at the end. The country of the interviewee is given after each quote. It's intended to show the range of different views people expressed about farm size and farm structure.
Expansion has gone phenomenally well. (Ireland)
It’s not often you see a vegan lunch option at a farming conference on a dairy farm. But that was part of the ‘broad church’ approach at the Ethical Farming Conference: a farming conference about agricultural sustainability organised by four farms in Scotland, taking place on the Ethical Dairy in Dumfries and Galloway.
A sincere thank you to everyone who took part in the farmer survey. One of the most satisfying parts of being a social science researcher is people engaging with the questions you’re posing and taking the time to respond. Without that engagement we’d just be sitting in a room wondering what farmers think about year round housed systems or why they chose the system they did.
A man in California is suing Ornua: the organisation that markets and sells Irish dairy products abroad over claims that Kerrygold butter is “grass-fed”. The man is claiming false advertising because Irish cows do not subsist on grass alone but their diet is supplemented by grain and meal which may include genetically modified (GM) ingredients.