Black and white decision

13 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.


Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

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§ 6 Responses to Black and white decision

  • slpmartin says:

    It is so very sad when such history is sold…I’ve seen the same thing in the States…where small family farms are taken over by corporate interest…a sad state of affairs….thanks for this fine poem.

  • gonecycling says:

    Thank you Charles – this was just one of those things I had to write about, without embroidery or artifice. We’re not just losing an industry; we’re losing something of ourselves.

  • timkeen40 says:

    When I grew up, everyone in the community owned a farm. The boys in the community made their spending money working on those farms. One by one, as the years went and it got harder for the small farm to survive, the farms disappeared. I have done no farming in twenty-five years and it is empty inside me for it.

  • gonecycling says:

    Hey Tim, great to see you here, and many thanks for your comment. Like you, I haven’t done any farming for many years, although as you’ll see from a couple of posts, I’m doing some part-time volunteer shepherding to keep in touch. I’ll read through your work and leave some comments soon.

  • Ina says:

    Good poem!
    My friends parents had 15 cows and lived from the milk they sold. They learnt they could make more money renting the stable out in Summer to holidaymakers when the cows were in the meadow and later the cows had to go all together. No profit to be made. Sad.

  • gonecycling says:

    You’re right, Ina, it is sad. The problem we have in Britain now is that, having already absorbed all the little family outfits like your friend’s parents, the big dairy farms are now going out of business themselves, as the supermarkets squeeze the profit margins every tighter. I don’t know where it will end: I don’t want to believe that the big food retailers would really be happy to see our entire dairy industry destroyed for the sake of their own profits, but maybe I’m just being naive.

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