AS PART of Wigtown Food Festival’s two-day event, local dairy farmers opened their gates to the public in an effort to better inform consumers and tackle the ever-growing urban-rural divide.

In its sixth year of running, the festival welcomed visitors to celebrate the link between food and farming and showcase local businesses and produce. For the first time, a group of farmers teamed up to host a dairy open day which gave the public a fantastic opportunity to see behind the scenes on a dairy farm and ask important questions around animal welfare and the environment.

Four of the individuals involved in the open day had recently returned from a Rural Youth Project and Scottish Enterprise learning journey to the Netherlands where they had witnessed first-hand how transparency on Dutch farms had brought consumers much closer to their food producers. This in turn had fed into better consumer support for agriculture and a stronger sense of community.

The farmers on the trip were totally inspired by their visit, which was enhanced by the intergenerational mix of attendees and came away with a determination to look at ways of growing consumer/producer relations in Scotland.

Rebecca Dawes of Jane Craigie Marketing and Co-Director of the Rural Youth Project was part of the team behind the trip to the Netherlands and on learning about the impact the trip had left on some of the farmers, suggested that an event showcasing the dairy sector would be a fantastic way to implement their ideas.

Speaking to The Scottish Farmer, Rebecca explained why she was determined to set the wheels in motion: “I have always been passionate about Open Farm Sunday as similarly it is an opportunity to welcome the public onto your farm, but with the dairy open day, this was about engaging with consumers on a smaller scale and focusing on building that community relationship.

“This area is known for dairy farming, but being a very rural region, there is a clear separation between town and countryside, which can mean that farmers can be removed from having that important contact with members of the public,” she continued.

“As some of the dairy farmers learnt from their trip to the Netherlands, involving the public and welcoming them on to their farms goes a long way to tackling the urban-rural divide and it was clear to me that this would be a positive step in the right direction, one in which we can build on in years to come.”

The event was hosted by three dairy farmers from Dumfries and Galloway – Colin Ferguson from Knockann Farm, Kirkinner, Rory Christie from Dourie Farm near Port William, and Aylett Roan from Roan’s Dairy near Castle Douglas. Visitors had the opportunity to hear about three different farming systems, but all with common threads – high animal welfare, care for the environment and quality produce.

Around 50 people attended the event which took place at Knockann Farm, beginning with a group visit to see the cattle grazing in the fields, where they learnt from Colin about the principles involved with grazing. From there, they were split into smaller groups of three, to be led by Colin, Aylett and Rory on an intimate journey through the dairy process.

From watching cattle being milked in the parlour and letting the kids get hands-on with the clusters, to hearing about the importance of cattle nutrition and types of feed. Visiting the feed shed, the public were able to learn about the importance of diet and grass management and Tarff Valley were on-site to answer any questions.

The groups paid a visit to the calf shed, which uses automatic calf feeders and the farmers explained the process of monitoring food intake and keeping them warm with coats, in an effort to dispel myths that calves are poorly treated when they leave their mothers.

Colin’s milk processor Arla brought a tanker to the farm to explain to the public how much milk they hold and where it travels to. Then along with Rory’s processor Lactalis, held workshops on cheese making, giving the public a taste for the whole milk process from start to finish.

“I was overwhelmed with the support from local farmers turning up with their families on the day and all the processors who were happy to work together to ensure that important messages were delivered to the public,” Rebecca continued.

“By keeping the groups small, we were able to make sure the full story was communicated to the public, where if they had been wandering round on their own, they could have been at a loose end or misinterpreted different processes,” she concluded.

Colin explained that there are a lot of dairy farms working in the Dumfries and Galloway region, but despite operating different systems, they are all united in the same ethos of working towards making the dairy industry more sustainable and animal welfare friendly.

“The dairy event was an important reminder to us farmers that the public really want to know about food production and it’s time we remember we are experts in our field and its up to us to pass on information to our consumers. The public don’t need to see where their food comes from, we need to show them,” he urged.

“They are our market and if we are unwilling to look after them, then we aren’t fit to run our businesses. Opening my gates to the public made me realise that we should be running our operation through the eyes of what the public would expect from farmers and we need to be more committed to working with consumers to meet their needs and demands,” he continued.

“Food production is a by-product of the dairy industry, our priority is to the welfare of our animals and to looking at how we can make our farms more sustainable longer-term and I was delighted by the reaction of the public and how pleased they were to see the treatment of our animals.

“I think all farmers can do their bit to engage better with consumers, whether that’s volunteering at a neighbouring farm event or opening their own gates to the public. We need to be more involved with constructing the correct messages that get out to the public and making sure we are defending the mistruths about our industry,” he concluded

One lady who visited Colin’s farm, did so for the first time and was blown away by the care and attention given to the cattle on the farm: “We have never visited a farm before, but we have loved the experience especially watching the milking. I had no idea quite how much time farmers invested in caring for their animals, all the little calves had coats on them and were monitored using the automatic feeder to make sure they had plenty of milk.”

The fourth farmer who returned from the Netherlands was the chair of Wigtown Food Festival and owner of Galloway Chillies, Sheena Horner, who was delighted to combine the dairy open day with the wider festival: “It is important we invite our consumers to learn more about how their food and drink is produced, the care we put into protecting the environment and the work we do to ensure biodiversity and sustainability is at the forefront of our minds.

“The Wigtown Food Festival and events right across the country are key to bridging the gap between rural and urban communities and offering events and activities that appeal and inspire generations will continue to have a positive impact.” concluded Sheena.