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Standard bearers: Ellie’s Dairy

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader, Ellie's Dairy

“Intensive farming practices fattens the goats up quickly—and they do produce more milk in consequence—but there is something to be said for just letting them grow,” says Joe at Ellie’s Dairy. In front of him, the creamy abundance of milk and goat’s cheese speaks literally volumes: Slow Food principles doesn’t have to mean scanty production.

On the contrary, Joe says, in the last year or so their sales of goat’s milk have tripled “from 100 litres to 300 litres per week”. Awareness is changing, he continues. Questions like “is this unpasteurised milk?” “What are the goats fed on?” and most importantly, for those concerned with animal welfare, “what happens to the unwanted billy kids?” are becoming more frequent.

Fortunately, Ellie’s Dairy being a company that prides itself on its ethical transparency, Joe has the right answers. It’s why Ellie’s Dairy is Slow Food accredited—but it is also the reason that, despite growing competition, customers travel long distances for Ellie’s cheese, the udder-fresh goat’s curd and milk.

Primary concern
“Their welfare is our primary concern. Without that, we have inferior products.” The ‘fattening up’ Joe described earlier relates to the practice, adopted by most large scale goat farms, of feeding nuts and cereal to the goats. It increases the yield of milk on a short term basis, but in the long term “it takes a real toll on their insides and after four or five years they will stop lactating. Their milk will dry up.”

If they don’t die soon after—and many do—they are culled out of the herd, the farmer unable to sustain the cost of an animal that is not paying for its upkeep through milk.

The team at Ellie’s, you’ll be pleased to hear, think somewhat differently. Relying on hay, haylage, and a dash of sugar beet as opposed to high-protein nuts and cereals, owners Debbie Vernon and David Shannon found that the initial compromise in yield (three to four litres per goat, per day as opposed to six or seven) was more than compensated for by the fact their goats produced milk for so much longer.

Ellie's Dairy  cheese

Wild flowers and pasture
“Our oldest lactating animal at the moment is 10 years old,” says Joe. She could milk for another two or three years. “We don’t get the amount that larger farms get straight away, but over time—I don’t know the exact number, but it’s pretty much even.” Because the milk is raw and (at the moment) the goats feed on wild flowers and pasture, it is infinitely better in taste.

“They are getting the good stuff. They’re out there at the moment,” Joe grins, “and they’re pretty fussy when it comes to grass. They’ll only eat the best bits.” Steering clear of heat treatment means the nutritional benefits the pasture endows the milk remain intact: “Flash pasteurisation alters the enzymes and proteins of the milk.”

Calcium survives, but not much else, Joe continues and while the milk for Ellie’s handmade cheese is indeed pasteurised, the process is slower: 63 degrees, held for half an hour, which is far less intense than the rapid rise to 87 degrees in flash pasteurisation. In short, the slow, gentle treatment of both the goats and the milk pays dividends not just to the animals, but to us.

Reap the benefits
Still, it’s the former who most obviously reap the benefits of fresh pasture, civilised milking hours (twice a day, as opposed to the industrial three times), and a regard for welfare that insists goats are not put into kid until they are two years old. “As far as we’re concerned, they are too small before then. They are not fully grown.”

The goats at Ellie’s Dairy have three ‘growth’ stages: they are kids, from naught to one, then they are ‘goatlings’—“teenagers, if you like,” says Joe, and they do not encourage teenage pregnancies. In contrast, on a large scale farm, as soon as they reached sexual maturity they’d be, as Joe delicately puts it, “put in with the boys”.

“The boys” are, of course, those billy goats selected for breeding purposes: the stud at Ellie’s is called Hugo. The fate of all those billies who aren’t selected depends on the farm. Many euthanise at birth, unwilling to spare the space, milk and feed needed to rear them up for kid goat meat—though mercifully, this is slowly changing. Needless to say, Ellie’s Dairy has held on to their kids, giving them “short, happy lives” before selling them for kid goat meat from the start.

Award-winning lunch boxes
Nothing is wasted. “Billy goats are the biggest byproduct of the dairy industry,” Joe explains. By selling it, to customers and to Borough Market’s Gourmet Goat for their award-winning lunch boxes, Ellie’s ensure they go to good use: indeed, even their skins are set aside and sent to a tannery for rugs.

In the meantime, back at the farm, the oldest goat, Betty, is approaching her 14th birthday and like all the “old girls” at Ellie’s, remains a lasting tribute to the merits of farming practices that value the animals as more than just milk machines.

“She’s stopped milking of course, but she looks after the others. She reassures the mums during kidding, and stops the younger kids hassling the mums for milk when they should have been weaned. She’s grumpy as ever, but she shows the other goats how it’s done.”