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Bobbie and Edward Gill are finding natural solutions to farming challenges
Interview by Sue Marsden
Father and son Bobbie and Edward Gill discuss their approach to farming and the challenges of making a living. The importance of family and their passion for the Sabden Valley and the Pendle Hill landscape.
How long have your family had a connection with Pendle Hill?
Bobbie: My grandfather Eddie came to Rattenclough Farm in 1932, he had two sons and two daughters. My father was the eldest son and came to work on the farm with his brother Roy. In 1950 they took Cockshotts Farm where I live now. 1952 they took on New York Farm and in 1964 they bought Top Row Farm. Rattenclough was a waterboard farm owned by Padiham Council at that time and now United Utilities own the land on the fell.
I left school in 1967 and was going to join the farm with my cousins but they decided to split it. Uncle Roy took Rattenclough, and we got Cockshotts, New York and Top Row. Cousin Laurie now farms Rattenclough and Hay Barn (aquired 1974) rented from Huntroyde and split between Laurie and myself. It was a shock when my father died suddenly 1994 but we managed and my son Edward later joined the farm after school. His brother Alan also works on the farm as well as working away.
How has farming changed since your earliest memories?
Bobbie: It’s a lot harder to make a living. Once of a day you could make a decent living out of farming but it’s harder now. For example the year my father died in 1994, we were getting 23.5p for our milk. Red diesel at that time was 15p. Now, at this moment in time I’m getting 27.5p and red diesel is 60p. Feed concentrates have gone up to £100 a ton and fertilisers have gone up, plus electric and other things. Machinery has gone up 40% in the last 5 years. The equipment is getting evermore technical.
When grandfather came to Rattenclough the wool check paid the rent, it was a valued commodity, now it won’t cover anything. In fact if we didn’t shear our own sheep we would be out of pocket. I know there are people fighting to bring back value to wool, but it’s tough.
What about meat values?
Bobbie: Lamb has gone up a bit but beef really hasn’t over the last ten years. The supermarkets and the government want cheap food so that people have more disposable income to spend on fast moving consumer goods. We get a subsidy each year, so much a hectare, to help keep the prices down. It’s very difficult unless you farm 1000s of acres. We farm around 260 acres and you need more and more to stay still really.
Since 2016 you have been selling Raw Milk – unpasteurised and untreated milk direct from your dairy herd. What prompted you to make that change?
Edward: The change came when the price of milk dropped to 14p for the A price (which is 80%) and 5p for the B price (20%) but it was costing us 25p a litre to produce. We were told that we needed to milk over 100 cows but we wouldn’t budge because that’s not how we farm.
We are a traditional low cost system, not a factory farm. There are people out there milking 500 cows a day with a big overdraft and not getting anywhere. When the price crashed we asked should the cows go? Then we saw the Countryfile programme where a farm in Suffolk was selling milk straight from the farm, and there was a big market for it. Raw untreated milk can’t be sold in supermarkets, it is sold direct from the producer.
Bobbie: Edward got on the computer and found this guy, rung him up and got an invitation to visit the farm in Suffolk. He and Nichola (Edward’s wife) went off to Suffolk on a 7 hour drive for a couple of days and gathered all the information. He wanted to buy this vending machine, which dispensed the raw milk into litre and 2 litre containers but first we needed a retail license to sell the milk directly to the public. This involved passing food safety regulations, which we did. The specially designed Italian vending machine was ordered at considerable expense.
What was the local response like when you started selling Raw Milk from the vending machine on the farm?
Bobbie: We had asked everyone around us “Would you support us in this?” and they all said “Yes”, but it was a gamble as we didn’t know if people really meant it. We put up a shed to put the vending machine in and Nichola got going on Facebook to get the word out there. We were very busy for a while, it was a brand new thing, the first in Lancashire. People came and followed the instructions on the machine, using the sterilised plastic or glass bottles provided to collect their milk.
Some people have concerns about drinking Raw Milk, has that been a hurdle to overcome?
Edward: About a year after we opened, sales were suspended while our milk was investigated for a possible salmonella contamination with one possible case. I took this really seriously and contacted the chair of the microbiology service for the UK and she privately tested our milk. After being inspected by the Food Standards, Dairy Hygiene inspectors, the Environmental Health and microbiologists, also a ministry vet specialist, the conclusion was that our grass fed, closed herd was strong and healthy. We took preventative measures by vaccinating the herd against salmonella at some expense. We take it very seriously and now we have a programme where we regularly test for salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and e coli.
Bobbie: People have mixed views on Raw Milk, some think that it is poison but we have people coming who have all sorts of underlying health problems with their gut and skin and they swear by it. Nothing has been scientifically proven, so we don’t sell it on health grounds but we have met some very interesting people who really believe in it. They think that raw milk retains healthy, natural nutrients that get lost in the pasteurisation process.
Edward: Yes, we’ve made a lot of friends through selling raw milk. We especially have a lot of people from the Asian community who come for it and buy for their family and friends.
Bobbie: People travelling from Nelson, Colne, Burnley, Accrington and Oswaldtwistle. They come because the milk is untreated. They don’t want anything with additives, they want the milk straight from the cow with the natural bacteria.
Edward: At the minute the raw milk is our saviour as it give us a better margin and we have control over it.
What happens to the milk you don’t sell?
Edward: That goes to Bowland Fresh
Bobbie: I’ve supported Bowland Fresh with fellow farmer William Slinger from the beginning. Our milk is quite creamy as the herd is pure Friesian, a bit like the Jersey milk. The Bowland Fresh milk is pasteurised and sold in Booths supermarket.
How do think Brexit will affect you, could you have to make more changes?
Bobbie: We don’t know – we haven’t a clue. We export lamb so that might be affected but if milk is not coming into the country then the price of milk may rise … It’s all speculation, we will all have to wait and see. Farming is one of the few industries where we raise our beef and lamb but we have no idea what price we will be able to get for them until the day we sell it. In any other industry, if your raw materials go up 2% then you put 2% on your selling price. We are not in that position.
Your farm is Farm Assured Certified which confirms that you meet comprehensive standards of food safety & hygiene, animal welfare, traceability, and environmental protection. Do you think that the public are loyal to British produce and the ‘Red Tractor’ label?
Bobbie: I don’t think that most people look for the ‘red tractor’ logo when they are shopping or know what the ‘red tractor’ sign on packets even means!
Edward: Customers coming for the raw milk – not one of them I’ve asked knows what the red tractor stands for.
Do you have plans to expand your retail range with the raw milk for example with cheese?
Edward: Not really. We have gone more into the environmental side of things. We’ve got nesting curlews and lapwings and have seen our first barn owl this year. We have a front meadow that has never had fertiliser or spray put on it. It used to be a meadow so I thought it would be good to plant it with wild flowers. I contacted Sarah Robinson and that’s how I got involved with the Pendle Hill Landscape project and they’ve helped us plant up the wild flower meadow. We’ve also got an old mill lodge and that’s been fenced off by the Ribble Rivers Trust and part of the brook. The brook is really clean and we have a rare larvae that brings salmon and sea trout to spawn, and the young fish are living off the larvae.
Bobbie: The mill lodge was deep and the fence was there for safety reasons, but since it’s been fenced it’s become a nature reserve. We planted quite a few trees above the lodge and along side the brooks.
Edward: The Rivers Trust have been involved and a local bird watcher has identified 75 different species.
Have you noticed changes to the natural environment in your lifetimes?
Edward: My Granny used to tell me that she loved going mowing with her Dad and the horse because of all the butterflies that used to fly up. I’ve not seen that and I want it back for my children. We don’t farm intensively so we still have a lot of the stuff that’s disappearing, we’re hoping that the Pendle Hill project will help us. We’ve a lot to look forward to, we’ve a lot of plans and it’s exciting. We know the support is out there, there are others also passionate about bringing back the wildlife. There are examples of other farms that have re-wilded, relayed hedges, banished pesticides and sprays and the insects, flowers and birds have come back.
Bobbie: Our air here has become cleaner. I have photographs of my father with some sheep taken in 1949/50 and the sheep are as black as black with soot from the mill chimneys that were around in their thousands across Lancashire and Yorkshire at that time. Also galvanised sheep netting 35/40 years ago used to last 10 years, now it will last 30 yrs. In Australia it will last a life time because of the lack of pollution.
Your land also has a lot of history. How did the Pendle Archaeology Group project on Calf Hill go last year?
Bobbie: In the summer of 2018 the Pendle Archaeology Group carried out magnetometery surveys and two digs. They are coming back to do some more this summer. They found two roads, one on top of the other. Possibly Roman but definitely a road way. All sorts of things are going on and I’m keen on local history. There is a vaccary wall up on the top. Elsewhere on the farm we’ve found evidence of smelting and there is a theory that this originated in Barrow-in-Furness, an important source of iron ore.
One of the mill lodges can be seen on a 1500s map way before the industrial revolution, and this is near where the smelting evidence was found. It’s possible there could have been a water driven bellows. They would have brought rock and broken it up to get metal out of it. They think that they imported this rock to make ploughs and early tools. We’ve a lot of history.
Edward: One guy came here one day looking for ‘pewter well’. I said “It’s hidden but I know where it is”. So we took him up and showed him, and he asked us if we knew why it was called ‘pewter well’. I didn’t have a clue and he told me that when Cromwell came through, his men used to steal everything that was of value and pewter was the most valuable thing local people would have. So they went and hid it in the well and that’s how it got its name.
Would you ever be tempted to up sticks and farm elsewhere?
Edward: It’s the local people that keep us here. Our family have been here nearly 100 years
Bobbie: I think we are stuck here now. I think we could make a lot more money if we moved, but money isn’t everything. My Grandad and Grandma moved here from Ingleton, and Silsden. When they moved to Rattenclough the locals gave them 12 months/2 yrs, they didn’t think that they would be able to make a do, but we are still here.
Edward: It’s home isn’t it? Pendle.
Bobbie: When you get up there on Pendle fell, in May, my favourite month when everything is coming to it’s best, all the different colours of green, you can see the Welsh hills straight down the valley on a clear day. You can see to the coast and Blackpool tower, and you can see right up into the Dales. It’s an amazing place, I just love it. There’s nowhere better. To say that we are so near to industry we still have a pretty valley.