Just because milk is labelled Free Range doesn’t mean it’s organic. Nick heads down to Sussex to meet one of the Arla farmers producing fabulous milk that is definitely both.
‘We harvest the sun basically,’ says Dan Burdett standing surrounded by dairy cows noisily crunching his green fields here in Sussex.
And what remarkable green it is; like many people I’m used to seeing cows cropping on boring grass that’s no taller than an inch, but this is like a massive salad. Loads of clover, dandelions, wild grasses, chicory and plantain ‘the wonder weed’, all growing in such lush proliferation that the cows’ nostrils disappear into it as they eat. ‘The more leaf we have in the field, the more sunshine we capture', Dan says.
In fact, to be honest it looks so good that given some oil, vinegar, salt and pepper I’d be down there eating it myself.
The dairy farm began turning organic in 1999, as Dan’s father explains, ‘people thought we’d always been organic actually’ he says, ‘because I used to talk about it so much, but in fact just like everybody else I used to go around with a sprayer, killing things.'
It was perfectly safe of course,' he continues, 'but I realised more and more that if you can do without pesticides and fertilisers it’s better. Cheaper, too.’
Ah yes, cheaper. Dan and his family are not dewy-eyed, save the planet types. As they explain, if being organic and free-range didn’t work economically they wouldn’t be doing it. After all Dan has a small son of his own and the farm has to be a viable business both now and into the future.
And of course the product has to be better too, no one wants to buy organic, free range milk just to virtue signal, it has to taste better than standard milk otherwise there’s no point.
We go and see the young calves out in their field where they are as inquisitive as puppies, wandering nosily up to us and springing away when startled by the camera shutter. They happily bounce and bound around their field, their yellow ear tags making them look like old Morris Minors signalling they’re about to turn in two directions at once.
And Dan does genuinely care about the cows’ happiness because they actually do seem very cheerful. ‘They spend as much time as possible outside,’ he tells me. ‘Only when the weather’s really bad do we keep them indoors.’
The clover he grows is a very important part of the farm’s ecosystem, clover is a ‘legume’ and legumes are very good at getting nitrogen out of the air. Nitrogen is a powerful fertiliser and so most farmers will add it artificially to get good growth.
Unfortunately, that kind of soil additive all too often washes out and into water courses where it can be poisonous and of course, it costs money to buy it in the quantities needed.
Clover however holds the nitrogen it takes from the air in its roots where it’s released slowly to feed the grass and other plants around it. ‘Clover, or any legume, really, is the building block of an organic farm,’ says Dan.
It’s taken almost eighteen years to fully convert the farm to organic, to allow the natural biology to come back after all the years of fertilisers and sprays, Dan explains. ‘The word out there is that organic farming can’t feed the world, but we’re out to prove that it can. We’re seeing our grass grow better and better year on year, so much so that we’ve had to get more cows to eat it, we’re up to 280 now, so we know organic works.’ As he says, 'healthy grass means healthy cows and so healthy milk'.
‘Growing up I never really wanted to be a farmer,’ admits Dan, ‘in fact for nine years of my early working life I wasn’t, but I decided that sitting in an office wasn’t for me. I wanted to run my own business, I wanted to work outside and I wanted to do something that I had a passion for.’
Dan’s farm is a part of the Arla network. Arla Foods dates back to the 1880’s, when dairy farmers in Denmark and Sweden joined forces with one common goal: to produce and provide the best dairy products, creating new opportunities for business growth. Today Arla Foods have farmer owners in seven countries across Europe.
The milk produced is now carefully labelled as Arla Organic Free Range Milk to avoid consumer confusion, as milk can be free range without necessarily being organic. That’s because free range only relates to the ‘grazing’ requirements and not the actual grass the cows eat, which could be grown using pesticides and packet fertilisers.
‘It all starts in the soil’, says Dan striding off to hustle some smilingcows along, ‘and it ends on the shelves.’
Arla Organic Free Range Milk 2-litre semi-skimmed and whole milk formats are available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Nia stores across the UK (rsp: £1.75). For more information, including nutritional details, visit www.arlafoods.co.uk. Follow Arla on Twitter @ArlaFoodsUK
We have two delicious recipes using Arla Organic Free Range Milk, Sussex Smoky Scotch Eggs and Vanilla Crème Brulee. Check them out.