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The Price of Milk: Pendleton Farmer William Slinger on Buying Local
Interview by Sue Marsden
Generations of the Slinger family have lived and farmed around Pendle Hill for over 450 years. Facing an ever-changing political and economic climate, William Slinger acknowledges that the key to survival when running his farm is to ‘ride and adapt’.
How have things changed in your life time?
When I was born in 1972 there were nine farms in Pendleton, by the time I was 10 there were about 4 or 5 farms in the village, by the time I was 20 we were down to three. I was lucky to go to Newcastle University to study agriculture but you don’t need a degree in economics to see which way the tide’s going. It was obvious that they were getting less economically viable and I think that was the biggest concern I had at the outset, and has been since. Obviously the cost of living is rising and what we are producing is getting worth less as time goes on. At the time of the 2nd World War people were spending half their income on food, now it’s down to 7 or 8% in some cases. We now need to produce nearly five times as much milk to buy a litre of diesel as we did 20 years ago for instance.
In response to the economic conditions in 2001 you developed your own milk brand called Bowland Fresh. How many farmers are involved in Bowland Fresh, and how has it progressed over the past sixteen years?
The numbers have varied over time, but it’s about 15 farmers now which is about the same number we set off with. It’s gone up and it’s gone down. A lot of farmers are retiring anyway and our view was that we would rather try and let people within the group produce more milk and have first chance rather than recruit other people.
I have a lot more grey hairs than when I started, but it has worked, even though it’s not the answer for everybody. It’s only part of the answer because the market for local milk is limited and the dairy industry is evermore competitive, mainly because retailers use it as a discounted ‘frontline product’.
Isn’t your milk a premium product?
Yes, but you have to be careful that it doesn’t become too premium and not sell. With milk, and to a certain extent all agricultural products, logistically it has to work. You have to be able to send a tanker round and pick up to make it worth doing. Booths asked us if we wanted to do yogurts etc but the problem is if only a few sold … it has to be worth doing. You are better going to a local cheesemaker and balancing what remaining milk you have got. With liquid milk sometimes retailers don’t want to order on a Sunday, but we have just as much milk as the day before, so we supply Greenfields Dairy at Chipping, Sandhams, and one or two other local dairies as well as some for doorstop delivery. We have 7 or 8 customers. We supply Booths, Asda and more recently Morrisons (29 stores in the North West). We need a basket of customers rather than just one.
Local cheesemakers want local milk to make native cheeses. We can be affected on price but our market is unique. You become philosophical over time. You are in the difficult position in that the farmer always wants more money at the farm gate, but the cheesemaker wants to give less. Price rises are more difficult to manage than price falls. If the price falls everyone is disappointed but they accept it. When the price rises people think ‘oh it’s gone up a penny or two or three or five’ and then when it comes and it’s only 3 and a half it’s a major disappointment. You can’t win! You just have to work with it.
Would you say that you are hefted to the land? You went away to Newcastle University – did you feel a thread drawing you back?
Yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely the land itself, it’s this part of the world as well. I think that there is just something about the Northern Hills. It’s not just farming, it’s farming here, these hills, this landscape. There is something about the Northern Hills that has kind of held my family.
You work with your family on the farm – can it be difficult working so closely with them?
It’s probably difficult working with anybody! I think the biggest thing is keeping a bit of space. Including moorland and some common grazing, we farm about 600 acres. We have plenty of walls and good therapy is to go and build a wall for the afternoon, out of the way. It doesn’t cost you anything, you get a result, preferably without a mobile phone signal, and you’re right then. Actually, what you want is different people taking an interest in different parts of the farm. Whatever you do, whether it’s breeding livestock, or machinery, or whatever. If everyone was trying to do the same thing all the time it would create a pressure cooker. Obviously sometimes you pull together, for example if you are harvesting, but generally we keep to our own jobs.
Did you ever consider any other career than farming?
Yes, but not seriously. I recently went to a christening and met up with University friends. While I was driving back I thought that I am the only one of the six who isn’t some sort of a doctor by now and I realised that other options were available, but I never wanted to take any other options.
What are the moments that stand out over your farming career?
When I was growing up and first being sent off to do jobs that I hadn’t done before, like going to mow at harvest time. You would be sent off very early in the morning and you would go down to the Out Barn or the field behind the church, the meadow up there. You would start off, and it would just be coming hand light, and you realised that you were probably one of the very few people who were seeing the sun come up. Then the whole valley would come to life by 9 o’clock, or whenever you were coming back for your breakfast, and everyone would be about, but you had seen a bit of something that the rest of the world hadn’t seen.
A recent highlight was when we had finished getting the last of the grass in this year. It’s been a very difficult last half of the season because it became very wet late in the Summer and people have struggled to get it in. You can’t help but feel very pleased and satisfied to have done it – if I could just bottle how I felt and get it out in the middle of February or something it would be worth a lot. Unfortunately you can’t store that memory, but if you could it would be great because it’s such an effort and concern to get it in and get it right, because it’s a big part of our costs – winter feeding.
We need to get a decent quality grass crop and we have started to do a bit more winter ploughing, reseeding and growing either a Spring Barley crop or Triticale and Lupins which is a crop to help with protein. Growing an arable crop is new for us. We harvest about 10 days before the grain hardens so that livestock can eat it without it having to be put it through a cracker or something. That has been very satisfying because people have said to me ‘you can’t plough anything around Pendle, you will just turn up clay.’
Pendle has been ploughed in the past though hasn’t it?
Yes and I grew up with people who remember growing oats during the 2nd World War. They said they grew very well, but it was too wet by September to harvest, so half the time it rotted in the fields. What has changed with modern machinery is that with bigger machinery, bigger tyres, comes lower ground pressure. It’s still wet but we have a better chance of not damaging the land. When you try and grow new crops and meet people, say, down at the auction they’ll say “Hello William, how are your seeds going on?”. No-one says “How are you?” just “How are your seeds going on?”.
It’s not the easiest part of the world to farm then…
No it’s not. It’s marginal whether the land is worth enclosing at all, and even Bowland too. Bowland is the last place you would start a dairy farm, it’s too wet for a lot of cattle, but there is something about the landscape. Pendle is like the backbone of the area. I can’t put my finger on it, there is just something there that has held my family to this side of the hill.
Grandad Harry Slinger’s viewpoint was there was no sense in wandering to find something that has been near to hand all the time. He would say, “To watch the sun rise and set on Pendle is a delight forever”, but he also used to say “Nothing good ever came over that hill neither wind or women”.
You have written to the press with your views on politics in farming
I got involved in 1999 when I went with a group of farmers from Bowland to Northern Ireland as part of the Transnational group. We went to Donnegal in the Republic of Ireland to look at a similar area to Bowland to see how the common agricultural policy was being implemented and to see whether there was anything we could learn from it. Then, we went to Limoge in France down in the Limousine region. Similar things, similar area, and we wrote a report called Are you farmers in a common market which we published on our return. We found that in both places the policy was the same but the way they interpreted it was very different. I hoped that they would reform things but they didn’t.
Do you think post Brexit be better for farmers or not?
It will be better for some. It has the potential to be a major upheaval and we don’t know what is going to emerge. I thinks it’s likely that we will end up with more open markets and it’s going to be a case of survival of the fittest, but I think those responsive to change are more likely to survive. It’s not necessarily the biggest businesses that will do it, it’s those who can ride and adapt, and our type of farming is as well placed to manage that. We haven’t got all our eggs in one basket. Two or three different enterprises – Dairy, Beef, Sheep – and we grow a lot of what we eat ourselves, so we are not totally dependent on things to be bought in. We will just have to ride with it. The key thing is whether farmers will be able to ride with it when prices are down. In my experience subsidies don’t work and we do need reform. What is the point of paying billions of pounds to people who aren’t producing anything?
Are there lessons to be learnt from the past?
The village of Pendleton has changed here more in the last 70 years than the previous 700. Our family claim to be the first to own a tractor in the village. Granny said when it came (guessing maybe 1947) it came into the yard here at Spring House, and we couldn’t get round it there were so many people who had called in to have a look. Mrs Bleazard who lived across the way said “You will always be poor now because you will always want something to put behind it”, and Granny said she was right. Another thing Granny said was “New technology, when it came along, was always discussed, vetoed, and then it arrived”
You do keep having to adjust a little bit. The trap is to say “this is what we have always done and we are not doing it any differently” because I think that is fatal long term.
We are going to have quite a challenge going forward with the changes that are coming, but we do need reform. I remember the foot and mouth and thinking it’s a disaster but at least we are not going to go back to the way things were before, we will see some serious reforms, but it hasn’t really happened. One of the things about doing bits for press and radio it does focus your mind on the question and you are less likely to follow the group mantra. People say we will always need farmers, but they don’t have to be in this country do they? These are the things you start to realise.
Keeping the flag flying is going to be more challenging than it has been, but that doesn’t mean to say that there wont be opportunities because of that. I like to look for the positives.