Behind every pint of the supermarket’s milk is a dedicated band of British men and women committed to quality, sustainability and welfare
Be it stirred into your tea, glugged over a bowl of cereal or sipped ice cool from the glass, if you've ever enjoyed Waitrose milk, then there is a good chance that you have Brian Barnett to thank for it.
As one member of a select group of dedicated Waitrose dairy farmers, the 55-year-old is responsible for producing what many consider to be Britain's tastiest, most responsibly sourced milk. Better still, his enduring and unique relationship with the retailer is now being held up as a beacon of hope by an industry facing crisis. On his farm on the edge of the beautiful rolling Cotswold Hills, Barnett, along with his father Bill and brother Robert, has been rearing Holstein-Friesian cows for more than 30 years. He is just one of 50 farmers who produce essential Waitrose milk - all chosen for their dedication to welfare, sustainability and quality.
'There is no such thing as a normal day,' says Barnett of life on a dairy farm. 'But generally we start at 5am when we milk the cows and finish at around 11pm when we do a final check just before we go to bed. It may sound like
a ridiculous time to start the day, but the calves are hungry and need
feeding, and we like to ensure there is enough time between the first and second milkings to give the cows a rest. It's a long day, but on the plus side we don't have to travel far to work – about 100 yards to be precise.'
'Much of the rest of the day is spent tending to the cows to ensure they are happy and content. A key part of Waitrose's commitment to welfare is something known as the “five freedoms”, which includes freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear and distress, and freedom to express normal behaviour. This isn't just important to the cows, it's integral to the quality of
the milk. It is well known that comfortable cows produce better milk, so we make a real effort to be as close to our herd as possible and to understand exactly what they need.'
Barnett's animals graze on a rye grass, which they really seem to love. In winter, they eat fibre-rich silage, which helps to maintain the creaminess of their milk. He has even equipped his herd with pedometers – just like those usually donned by health fanatics. But instead of measuring fitness levels the gadgets are being used to see when the cows are ready to breed. When they come into season – and are ready to receive a bull – they double the time they spend walking, which is something that the pedometers can monitor. And the job of these clever gadgets doesn't end there. They also act as thermometers, alerting Barnett to any rise in temperature that may signal illness.
Like all of Waitrose's farmers, Barnett pays close attention to the sustainability of his business. Each year the farm is audited to ensure that enough is being done to encourage local wildlife
to flourish and to attract essential insects such as pollinators.
He is also advised on sustainable farming methods that help safeguard the environment.
Aware that sustainability extends beyond this, Barnett has been attending workshops run by Waitrose that help farmers to get their designated successors into the business. His dedication to both welfare and sustainability is all the more impressive considering that he is in an industry facing huge economic challenges.
Industry price wars
'In short, the British dairy industry is in a state of collapse,' says Barnett. 'This is largely because of the freeing up of world trade, which means milk and milk products can now be imported into the EU at very low cost, undercutting the domestic trade. To make matters worse, price wars are driving down the amount some British retailers are willing to pay per litre. The result is that the majority of British dairy farmers are not being paid enough for their produce. 'Many are currently getting less than 24p per litre and some even less than that. It costs a minimum of 28 to 30p per litre to produce. You don't have to be an economist to realise this isn't sustainable.
'It's obviously very bad news for farmers because many are being forced to leave the industry. In my lifetime the number of dairy farmers in the UK has halved.' Fortunately for Barnett, as a Waitrose dairy supplier he is paid above the industry standard for milk, receiving around 32p per litre. 'We count our blessings every day,' he says, 'because although there are a lot of very good dairy farmers out there not all of them have the opportunity to work for Waitrose, which really values its farmers. As such, we have a great deal of sympathy for what's happening in the rest of the industry. We've been producing milk exclusively for Waitrose for 15 years and are very proud of that. It's a relationship that's become stronger and stronger, and there is now a great deal of trust between us. 'But that doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels. Waitrose has very demanding and exacting standards, and has set one of the highest benchmarks in Britain, which is something they are prepared to pay for.'
Another benefit of supplying milk to Waitrose is working within a transparent supply chain. Unlike the majority of British dairy farmers, whose milk is supplied to a plethora of retailers, those who work for Waitrose do so exclusively, ensuring they know exactly where their milk goes. 'There are two major benefits to this,' says Barnett.
'Firstly, it means the quality of your produce can be assessed at every stage, which ultimately results in quality milk. Secondly, it is simply very rewarding to be able to walk into a Waitrose store and know that every bottle of milk has been produced by me or
another fellow Waitrose farmer. I think that's something customers value too.'
'Even better, despite paying a premium for its milk, Waitrose still offers it at exceptionally good value. This is what they've been doing for 15 years, which is something they should be extremely proud of.'
Does Barnett foresee a bright future for the rest of the dairy farming community? 'I may feel 25, but sadly I'm not getting any younger,' he says. 'And soon the British milk industry will be in the hands of a new generation of farmers. However, I'm optimistic that by setting such a high benchmark now Waitrose will inspire other retailers to do the right thing.'