Veganuary, whether you agree with it or not, has been very much in the news and social media, with as many reports damning high-intensity vegetable farming as there are on the perils of the animal-based protein industry. As a cheesemonger, it’s a difficult subject to approach. There are, absolutely, flaws within the dairy industry, but many of those stem from a lack of opportunity to turn ‘waste’ into income in an industry that already carries significant financial risk. The plight of billy goat kids highlighted this in recent years, with the majority being slaughtered and discarded rather than sold for meat. Despite campaigning, it’s still difficult to get hold of goat meat, certainly in this rural area. It’s a vicious circle; without the opportunity to try it, consumers can’t build up a market. Without the market, small retailers can’t take the risk of buying in stock that they can’t count on selling.
It’s hard to point at one thing and say, “if we change this, everything will be better”. Cut out animal products, and there are very real concerns about the impact of arable farming on the quality of the soil that makes up our landscape. On the other hand, the impact of livestock farming at a level to sustain current consumption is equally alarming.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few local cheesemakers, folk who are using milk from their own herds or buying it in from small, local farms. With their focus on producing cheese that’s simply as good as they can make it, they’re working to a model that has more in common with the pre-war industry than it does the mass production adopted by creameries.
No, this isn’t some kind of rose tinted, ‘wasn’t everything wonderful back then’ rant – it was as difficult an industry then, as it is today, and today’s cheesemakers have the advantages of several decades of scientific research to help them understand why a cheese might behave a certain unexpected way, and how to achieve the results they’re looking for. Whilst our Enviromental Health Officers get a lot of bad press, the majority do a good job and are, increasingly, showing that they do understand the peculiarities of artisan food and are willing to work with the industry, not against it. As awful as it is to see dairies such as Errington and Barwhey being persecuted for their craft, we can be thankful, at least, that cases like this do seem to be the exception now, rather than the rule.
That pre-war industry was sustainable. People made cheese when they had milk to do it and because cheese was, and is, a more valuable product than milk, as well as being one that’s a lot easier to transport and sell! Indeed, that’s how many of the classic cheeses we know and love today came about; farmers combining milk from morning and evening milkings (Double Gloucester), or collaborating within a small area to make their herds profitable (Gruyere aop). As a certain Somerset cheesemaker was heard to say – if the price you’re getting for your milk is too low, don’t complain about it, do something else with it to increase its value.
Maybe that’s the one thing we can change to make a big difference – work together, farmers and cheesemakers, retailers and consumers, but without the monoculture, high-impact production that’s so detrimental to our environment and, ultimately, to the quality of the produce. Collaboration, in tandem with moderation.
Make Local, Shop Local, Eat Local.