‘A Change of Hell and a new Devil’: Thinking and acting locally and ethically about food, farming and the planet

A Change of Hell and a new Devil’: Thinking and acting locally and ethically about food, farming and the planet

A Dairy Story by David and Wilma Finlay, Finlay’s Farm Ltd, Gatehouse of Fleet, 2022, £20.

Reviewed by Doug Gay

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen growing attention given to the ethics and costs of food production. IPCC reports have warned that our response to climate change must involve radical changes to agriculture and a pivot towards horticulture with a much greater proportion of our food coming from plant-based diets.

A growth in veganism, particularly amongst young people and a heightened concern about animal welfare are beginning to drive the debate forward, but the scale of vested interests and the conservatism of farming culture means that progress is too slow. We urgently need more worked examples of how to change farming for the better and more political impetus to creating new policy frameworks, which strengthen regulation and create incentives to drive change.

My grandpa, my dad and my uncle were all (dairy) farmers, and I was the first one born off the farm on my dad’s side. I come from Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire, and I went to school with lots of kids whose parents owned or worked on farms. Three things I already knew were reinforced by this book. Farming is tough and unpredictable work. Farmers work unreasonably long and hard hours. Farmers will freely tell you in detail about their costs but are notoriously tight lipped about their incomes.

I grew up 16 miles from Rainton Farm. Between 2002 and 2005 I lived three miles from the farm and I still visit the area many times a year. When our kids were small and non-vegan, we held a season ticket for Cream O’Galloway (the Finlay’s original venue and food brand) and visited almost weekly to buy ice-cream and use the adventure playground.

Over the years we often took friends and visitors for a lunch of home-made burgers using beef from their farm. I’m a slightly younger almost contemporary, but I don’t know David and Wilma personally. I have watched the evolution of their story with interest for the past 25 years, so I relished the chance to read this book (it’s my own bought and paid for copy I am reviewing) and reflect on it.

In the past decade, publication of reflective memoirs about farming in the UK has gone from a steady trickle to something of a spate. In 2021 I read Patrick Laurie’s acclaimed Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape (2020) about his experience farming in Galloway. I followed that with Bella Bathurst’s grittier, more forensic Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land (2021) set on a Welsh hill farm. Next on my list is Lake District farmer James Rebank’s best-selling English Pastoral (2020) with Cassells and Baers’ Highland croft based Our Wild Farming Life (2022) cued after that.

The Finlays’ crowd-funded, self-published memoir describes almost four decades of life on the 650 acres of Rainton Farm in Kirkcudbrightshire, which had been farmed by David’s grandfather and father before him. It is poignantly and fluently written as a ‘he says’, ‘she says’ dialogue, taking chapter about. Its importance and power lies not so much in its literary merits, but in the case study it offers and the argument it makes about dairy farming in contemporary Scotland.

The book charts the interesting but not uncommon story of the Finlays moving a farm from conventional to organic beef, dairy and sheep farming, but then pressing on to radically challenge industry norms by embracing ‘cow-with-calf’ dairy farming. They now run what they believe to be the largest dairy farm in Europe which leaves calves with their mothers to suckle.

Marketing themselves as ‘The Ethical Dairy’ because of this, added for their conventional dairy farming neighbours, an insult to the injury of their critiquing the system in the first place. They are now, by their own account, largely pariahs within the local farming community. 

Scottish farmers have many virtues, but the sector as a whole has a highly conservative herd-mentality which has been reinforced over the past half-century by the hard-selling commercial interests of the agri-chemical and vet-pharma sectors. In the 1980s and 1990s, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell routinely drew British farmers with one handheld out for EU cash subsidies and the other throwing pills down a cow’s throat.

To go organic was already to be an apostate, but to others in the farming community it was an acceptable eccentricity for those who could be bothered to earn their price premium that way. But the ‘cow with calf’ approach goes well beyond that. It not only challenges all conventional wisdom about milk yields and overturns established patterns of dairy and herd management but claiming the ‘ethical dairy’ epithet throws serious shade at their neighbours farming practices and lays down a gauntlet to virtually the whole dairy sector in Scotland and throughout the British Isles. 

By the end of the book it is clear that this is now the end-game of a stressful, demanding and at times heart-breaking journey to create a worked example of a different model of agriculture. David writes: “We want a dairy farming revolution that leads to cow-with-calf dairy farming becoming normal. That is now the end goal.”

The subversive importance of this homemade book lies in the nature of its challenge to an under-scrutinised, highly defended and highly lucrative sector of the UK economy, whose products are in the houses of 95% of the UK population ever day. The UK is the thirteenth-largest milk producer in the world. The 15.3 billion litres of milk produced in the UK in 2020, accounted for 16.4% of total agricultural output in the UK in 2020 and was worth £4.4bn (House of Commons Library figures).

The Finlays are at least at one with other dairy farmers in their resistance to what Wilma resorts to calling ‘vegan fundamentalists’. Conversely, plenty of vegan activists and analysts will still call bullshit on the ethical credentials of Rainton’s dairy farming, because it fails to address their substantive concerns about animal exploitation. Farming practices in Scotland, not least South-West Scotland still have far to go in their accounting to the vegan critique and in responding to the urgent issues about land use and food production stemming from the climate crisis.

There is a hegemonic view, little changed in the half century since J.T Coppock’s 1976 An Agricultural Atlas of Scotland, that ‘thin soils’ and ‘rocky landscapes’ can only accommodate a livestock based agriculture and this is reinforced by the temperate climate making for ideal grass growing conditions, so said livestock can be fed. South-West Scotland in 2023 has fisheries dominated by the appalling, unsustainable practice of chain dredging sea bottom for scallops (queenies), forestry dominated by conifer monocrops destined for clearfelling and agriculture dominated by unethical and unsustainable beef and dairy.

We are in need of an ecological reset which goes far beyond the still marginal shifts to organic meat and slightly more ethical dairy production. There is still very little progress on moving towards increasing local food production and the massive shift from agriculture to horticulture which a sustainable ecology demands. The Galloway Landscape beloved of my English teacher, the late poet William Neill, needs to be reimagined to reflect a much wider range of uses than grazing sheep and cattle and planting Sitka spruce. The revolution in use required will not be achieved without significant changes to the current pattern of ownership, changes which will be fought tooth and nail by the current owners and lairds of the land.

Buy this book and read it. You will understand the tensions and strains within contemporary Scottish farming better for having read it. The quote about ‘changed hell and a new devil’ was how Grandpa Findlay (David’s Father) greeted Wilma and David’s decision to revive cheesemaking on the farm. It reflects the grim humour of those who understand the difficulty of making a living from the land.

Read this book too to understand why the Finlays’ model is seen as such a threat to the rest of the dairy sector in the UK. There is far too much secrecy, silence and public ignorance around how the dairy industry works in the UK. And because this book still pulls some punches, read Bella Bathurst’s chapter on abattoirs and slaughter practices alongside it. Too many of us would rather not know how our farms and fisheries operate, but it is time to wake up and face the inconvenient truths and make some new choices.

In such a time, the Finlays of Rainton, offer a model of courage, conviction and persistence which will put many of us to shame. If we are not yet ready to go full vegan, then their model is the best in show and we should support it and measures to make it normative across the sector. That would be progress, but I doubt we can call it the end goal. There is a bigger revolution needed than even the Finlays are proposing.


A Dairy Story is available from The Ethical Diary: https://www.theethicaldairy.co.uk/cheese-shop/dairy-story

Wilma Finlay is speaking at the first-ever Kirkcudbright Fringe Festival taking place across the town on 1-3 September on the challenges of ethical farming and food. Details and tickets of this and many other events at: https://kbtfringe.co.uk/


Comments (6)

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  1. 230815 says:

    There are quite a few ‘cow-calf dairies’ down south, predominantly clustered along the Welsh-English border, but I know of only three in Scotland, two of which are here, in south-west Scotland.

    It’s important to highlight that the practice isn’t just about keeping calves with their mothers until they become ‘naturally’ independent of them before sending them to slaughter. It’s also about farm-size, about breeding, calving, grazing, and milking practices, and about land-management and nutrition; it’s also about sustainability, in other words.

    Ideologically, ‘cow-calf dairies’ does implicitly represent a critique of the current mainstream (and unsustainable?) dairy industry, which is why that industry and instinctively conservative and cautious traditional dairy farmers, who fear more regulation that might disrupt the already tenuous economics of their way of life, are so down on them.

    State support for farmers shifting to the paradigm of ‘cow-calf dairies’ would certainly facilitate a just transition to more sustainable farming practices.

  2. Alastair McIntosh says:

    What a great review. This is the takeaway for me: “But the ‘cow with calf’ approach goes well beyond that. It not only challenges all conventional wisdom about milk yields and overturns established patterns of dairy and herd management but claiming the ‘ethical dairy’ epithet throws serious shade at their neighbours farming practices and lays down a gauntlet to virtually the whole dairy sector in Scotland and throughout the British Isles.”

    As another commentator says here, the shift required needs to be led by how state support is configured. May it be animal welfare, wildlife and soil care driven; not greed driven. That is why authentic organic standards – the Soil Association is the gold standard – are so important.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    In terms of animal welfare, the question is surely “is this farming practice crueller than nature”? Or whatever version of nature we would otherwise deem allowable. I’m not sure today’s milk cattle would survive if suddenly left to their own devices. But in an ecologically balanced system, there would be predation, disease, hazards, trauma, exposure to the brunt of the elements. Though imbalances will come with climate change. I cannot see how a well-run, well-regulated cow-with-calf dairy can have worse animal welfare than nature, and some indication it may have better animal welfare, starting from where we are today. You could argue that breeding animals for docility and over-production for human benefit harms their welfare, at individual and group level, and have a point. But even some non-human animal species farm other animals, while many other arrangements are worse for some species.

    1. 230816 says:

      I’m not sure how you would make this comparison. Most breeds of dairy cattle are entirely unnatural; they don’t exist ‘in nature’, but only as human artefacts or cultivars. In terms of animal welfare, the question is aways, therefore, whether cow-calf dairy farming is more or less harmful to the animals involved than other kinds of dairy farming would be.

      1. Euan says:

        Aside: the cattle of Swona (non-dairy) have been feral since the late 1970’s. Cal Flynn has an interesting chapter on them in her superb book Islands of Abandonment.

        1. 230816 says:

          Indeed, Cal writes (and, in doing so, rehumanises through her poesis) the island and the cattle well. It’s a fine book.

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