Ahimsa Milk: A Diary of a Remarkable Dairy

The Beginning

All great journeys begin not just with the first step, but with a great vision too.  In 2007, Nicola Pazdzierska who worked at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was also volunteering at a social welfare charity called The Lotus Trust. The Lotus Trust is located at Bhaktivedanta Manor, a rural Hare Krishna community where the community’s cows are cared for with the highest standards of compassionate animal husbandry. It struck Nicola that such exemplary animal welfare was in stark contrast to the way cows are treated on most farms in the country. Yet while the Manor was setting a perfect example of cow protection, they were not reaching beyond their own community.

She conveyed her concerns to charity Director Sanjay Tanna, and together they felt that the real story of how milk is produced needed to be told. Throughout the country, the nation’s cows – the producers of milk for millions of children and adults – were being treated like insentient machines, and nobody really knew that much about it.

Thus germinated the idea of creating something unheard of before: a real milk revolution.

After some initial discussion, Nicola and Sanjay pulled together a strategy for raising public awareness on the issues, with the long-term plan of providing truly ethical milk for the public.

The First Step

The campaign began under The Lotus Trust as the “Happy Healthy Cows” campaign, promoting the need for cruelty-free milk.  For two years, the campaign started to show a presence at various events, talking about the issues and generally raising awareness amongst the general public.  The campaign struck a chord, as people started responding positively, asking where they could buy such ethical milk. (At this stage, Bhaktivedanta Manor only produced milk only for its internal community and were not registered for selling it on to the public).

During these early years, we encouraged people to take the first step to true compassion and go organic. Indeed, we boldly set up a petition to send to all the major supermarkets to stock only organic milk!

Moral support came from a welcome source – author and environmental campaigner Ranchor Prime whose book “Cows and the Earth” was published in late 2009.  After consulting with Ranchor we changed tack and went from campaigning for cruelty free milk to completely slaughter-free milk. Our aim was to partner with a farm that believed in our cause.

The Struggle

In 2009, the first attempt to find a suitable partner farm began. The Ahimsa team began intensive research, gathering information relevant to the project, and calling on farms to better understand what models could work. One of the key contacts made at this stage was Patrick Holden, the then Director of the Soil Association. He was helpful and supportive and started to talk to people also, thereby helping to create awareness amongst the farming community itself.

Initial discussions with a farm in Suffolk looked promising as we explored possible collaborations. The concept was also introduced to an organic box scheme in London. However, after five months of negotiation we were shocked to find ourselves ousted when the farm and box scheme colluded together, their intentions were questionable it became obvious that profit was the motive, we parted ways (their subsequent attempt to produce slaughter-free milk failed). This was a blow because we had invested so much time and effort into developing the partnership, only to see it dissolve. We then moved on to talks with an organic farm in the Cotswolds, but unfortunately this could not quite come up with the right match either.  Clearly, our journey was not going to be an easy one.

Sanjay then decided to approach OMSCo (Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) whom he had already contacted earlier in the research phase, and asked if they were aware of any small farms who might be interested to pilot a project with us. OMSCo came back with a suggestion of a farm in Kent – Commonwork. They had an organic herd of 250 cows.

This seemed a promising prospect, and we got in touch with Commonwork.  With continual meetings and discussions over 5 months, we finally came up with an agreement which suited both parties. There were naturally differences in approach and emphasis, but Commonwork had a willingness to pilot the project. 8-10 cows were assigned as the Ahimsa herd within their bigger organic herd.  These select animals and their offspring would be protected for life, male calves would go to a working farm and the cows retired at around 12/13yrs.

Of course, there were many challenges at this early stage to come up with a practical, working model. At this point, a key member of the team came on board – Kap Monet, a young economist with a passion for cows.  Kap worked out the initial economic model and helped to build in a pension fund into the price of the milk.  Meanwhile, a new not-for-profit organisation, called the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, was set up in the summer of 2010 to run the project.  The mission had finally been launched!

The harsh economic realities of creating our real milk revolution also began to manifest.  We needed to install a separate tank to collect Ahimsa milk – at of cost £24,000.  We decided to approach this project as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative. Half of the money was raised as gifts, and the other half as forward payments for milk to be produced.

Coming Up To The Mark – Quality Control

The project was formally launched in partnership with Commonwork and OMSCo on May 6th 2011, with the first milk production starting in August of that year.  Having minimal resources at the beginning and with the hot summer the previous year, we had lots of issues with the milk keeping!

Our first challenge was the taste. As it came from a singular herd and was much creamier than supermarket milk, many people who tasted it found it too rich and just could not relate to it.  After all, they had never tasted milk straight from a farm.  They didn’t know what real milk tasted like!  However, a few customers who had lived on farms or in small villages and had tasted ‘real’ milk  could not stop praising its quality as it brought back childhood memories. Their children, however, would complain that it didn’t taste nice and wouldn’t use it on their cereals!

Although our milk was pasteurised, we still had constant issues with temperature control which meant that the milk only lasted a few days, and for quite a few customers the milk had already curdled by the time they opened it!  It was a painful period for us where we were constantly apologising, and not surprisingly we lost many a customer during that period. Clearly, we had some serious thinking to do!

The winter of 2011 gave us a chance to catch our breath and regroup.  We began to overcome the problems we had been facing, but we had to plan ahead for the summer of 2012. We decided to get a cooling plate attached to our milk-line which helped to cool the milk much quicker before it reached our Ahimsa storage tank. The result was a vast improvement, as this summer we have found that the milk has been lasting for 5-6 days after the bottle has been opened. We have also had to educate our customers to keep their fridges at 3 degrees centigrade as our organic milk is additive-free and therefore fragile.

The Competition

The price for Ahimsa milk has been prohibitive for many people. Ranchor started talking about how things were topsy-turvy, with the price of a litre of milk being less than the price of a bottle of water!  So we began a campaign to educate the public on the real price of milk and developed an educational presentation and a Youtube video called “The Real Story of Milk”. The price of supermarket milk meant that due to the intensive, industrialised milking methods employed, followed by the slaughterhouse, the average lifespan of a cow (18-20 years) would come down to 5 years, while the average lifespan of a male calf in the UK is a shocking 3 days!  We wanted the public to become aware of this message. So our milk reflected the true price of milk where cows and calves were not sent for slaughter.

The fact is that we could not compete against the supermarket prices and had to educate the public as to why our milk was so expensive, while supermarket milk was subsidised by the slaughter industry.  Right at this time, the media had highlighted the case of the US-style mega dairy in Nocton – a zero grazing approach to milk production – which helped to raise further awareness and add fuel to the debate.

The Delivery Nightmare

From the beginning we had established a relationship with a doorstep milk delivery company, which would help to keep our costs down for both doorstep and pickup point customers. While this looked promising, as we were dealing with very small quantities we hit some pretty big bumps along the delivery route. Customers were either not receiving deliveries, or would get the wrong milk!. After 6 months of constant problems, a logistics expert offered his services to sort out the problems. There was a visible improvement for a period of time and mistakes diminished.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. We decided we could not expand if deliveries were so unreliable.  There were only two options before us: either we had to find a new delivery partner, or bring the entire delivery infrastructure in-house. Where we were paying 15p a litre to deliver to the door, others were asking us for 30% of the price of the milk. This was not really a viable option for us. After much agonising, we decided we would take on the whole operation ourselves.  And we were experienced enough now to factor in all cost implications.

The Delivery Reality

In April 2012 we launched a fundraising campaign for a delivery van.  We are now pleased to announce that we have recently transitioned into our own delivery set up, and are now due to purchase our own van. We are also pleased to announce that we are able to get the milk to our customers within 24 hours of the processing and bottling functions – a major achievement for Ahimsa milk.  This now means that the cost of delivery has risen to 50p a litre.

The Challenge of Adding Value

With Ahimsa milk, we can in theory expand our product range.  Although we have trialled several products such as paneer, haloumi, and a range of yoghurts, it has been difficult to find the right facility to enable us to make these products regularly. Furthermore, as we are only able to make small quantities at this early stage, additional transport costs drive the price up immensely. It is all about finding the right balance, and we hope to be able to provide something on a regular basis soon.  The one product which we are able to produce consistently is clarified butter – ghee.

Where We Are Today

This first year has been a real rollercoaster ride for us as we learn the ropes of how to set up and deliver ethically produced milk.  There have been plenty of challenges along the way, and the one we are facing right now is related to finding a viable milk processor. When we began, the Commonwork farm had someone processing/pasteurising their milk on a regular basis, which made it easy for us to slot in with their services. Unfortunately, due to the economic climate and the tight margins in the dairy industry, they opted out. This has meant an increase in the processing price for us. The cost of processing and bottling the milk outweighs the price of the milk. Through all of these fluctuations, we have strived to keep the price of the milk consistent and will continue to do so at £2.25 a litre. The only additional cost will be transportation to delivery points.

Phase 1 of the milk production part of the project was to have quality and delivery in place.  We believe we are almost there at the end of the first year.

Phase 2 is all about ensuring the two-year birthing cycle (lactation) works as we planned. To not over-stress our cows, we will ensure they do not give birth every year, but rather calve once every two years. This new approach will be tested in this year two of our operations. If it works effectively, it will be a piece of learning that goes to many other organic farms who are watching us to see what other key principles they can adopt to increase the welfare of their own cows.
Also, in this first year we have had seven new calves, 5 males and 2 females (one of who was born with one blind eye) sent to Wales to our sanctuary.

Lessons Learnt

Throughout this journey we have learnt one very important lesson: with a new venture like this, you have to persevere in the face of many unseen obstacles, while remaining anchored in and not compromising the primary principles of slaughter-free milk.