‘You can’t furlough a cow’: Farmers urge with public to buy direct to keep them in business during lockdown

Enterprising farmers have been setting up websites and even selling their wares via vending machines to keep things moving as much of the world has ground to a halt. Carla Passino reports.

Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy in Bungay, Suffolk — who makes Baron Bigod, a raw-milk, Brie-like cheese named after the 12th-century, rebellion-prone 1st Earl of Norfolk — suddenly found himself sitting on ‘a mountain of cheese’ so high that he eventually decided to give away about 3,000 wedges to local people.

The problem, Mr Crickmore explains, is that ‘there’s an awful lot of money that goes into making fresh cheese and if it’s thrown away, that’s a huge loss’. A field-to fork producer who keeps a herd of Montbeliarde cows on his family farm, he is saddled with ongoing costs: ‘You can’t furlough your cows.’

However, there is a lot that we can do to support country businesses when staying at home. The easiest way to help is to order cheese, meat, bread, fruit and vegetables directly from producers’ websites or through the online arm of independent delicatessens — Mr Crickmore says that if people kept buying his cheese as often as they did a month ago, his business would survive.

‘They don’t have to go crazy, but perhaps once a week, twice a week — buy the same proportion. It will allow things to come back the way they were once this is over.’

“We have five vending machines in west Dorset and we are hoping to get to 15”

A good starting point for online grocery shopping is The Farms That Feed Us (www.farmstofeedus.org), which keeps a simple, but effective database of producers that deliver locally and nationally. Another option is to buy direct from farm shops. Many are still open, with several offering click and collect (details are usually available on producers’ websites).

Some particularly enterprising farmers, such as Clinton Dairy, at Otterton Mill, Devon, and Hollis Mead, in Corscombe, Dorset, have even set up contact-free milk vending machines. Oliver Hemsley of Hollis Mead explains that the original idea behind his vending-machine scheme — which sells organic milk from grass-fed cows that are milked only once a day — was to reconnect the public with farming, but it now doubles up as a safe, efficient way of letting people stock up on a much-needed staple.

‘So far, we have five vending machines in west Dorset and we are hoping to get to 15, so if anyone has any good ideas on sites, we are happy to hear them. People can turn up at any time and get their milk. There’s no likelihood of contagion — we wipe all the surfaces and no one stands near the next person.’

Alongside each machine, there is another selling sterilised, reusable glass bottles, in case anyone needs a container.

Supporting this kind of initiative not only helps secure the future of the countryside during these tough times, but has multiple other benefits — it guarantees hard-pushed farmers a fair price for their products, contributes to reducing food miles and often underpins on-farm conservation efforts. As Mr Hemsley explains, proceeds from his milk sales fund a farm where wildflowers bloom, hedgerows thrive and ‘the noise of skylarks is deafening’.

He hopes that, once these difficult times are over, people will visit Hollis Mead and ‘understand what we are doing with wildlife. Our ambition is to work in tandem with Nature, not suppress it’.