Sue Stockdale talks to farmer Jonathan Cook, about why he loves his job. Jon’s herd of 50 cows produce the raw milk which he sells on his dairy farm in Wiltshire, England.
He is from a fourth generation farming family and along with his partner, Sarah, look after the herd on their 100 acre farm where they now adopt a regenerative approach to farming. Both are passionate about raw milk and believe that educating the public on its health benefits and where food comes from is part of their work.
Jonathan Cook transcription
Sue Stockdale : Hello listeners. It’s another episode of access to inspiration podcast. I’m Sue Stockdale, and here is the podcast where you can learn from people who are unalike you. Today. I’m down at Dora’s Dairy in Wiltshire speaking to dairy farmer Jonathan Cook. Welcome to the podcast, Jon.
Jonathan Cook : [00:00:28] Hello there.
Sue Stockdale : [00:00:29] So tell me, what’s it like being a dairy farmer?
Jonathan Cook : [00:00:32] I think it’s unlike any other job. I’m sure there are similar jobs, but very unlike other jobs, it’s all encompassing. It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. It’s my home. It’s what I think about pretty much every waking hour, everything I do revolves around the farm
Sue Stockdale : [00:00:50] And what’s the history of the farm? Then I know you’re, third generation?
Jonathan Cook : [00:00:54] I’m actually fourth generation. We bought this farm in 1953 coming from another farm in the village. [00:01:00] We came here with 16 cows, I believe. And four men would have milked those every day. Two of those men would have gone off to work in the railways and then come back and evening and milk the same cows again. I think it was about 30 acres when my grandfather bought it. We’re now about a hundred. Luckily land came up next door we could buy, as we got bigger. My dad got married, I think in 1966 or 67. And then he started a family and then that’s when he started to expand the herd. So we’re up to about 55 milking cows now and totalling about 80, 85 cows, depending on beef animals and young stock coming through.
Sue Stockdale : [00:01:40] I can imagine that being brought up as a youngster on a farm, must’ve been heaps of fun. Tell us about that.
Jonathan Cook : [00:01:45] I was never bored. I didn’t even know what the word bored meant. I had two older sisters. Then we had quite a few neighbors that were of equal or similar ages and we’d built dens and we’d go with air rifles and we were [00:02:00] never bored. Driving tractors. Haymaking seemed to last forever. All the summer was never long enough, but it always seemed to go on forever. And I don’t know they were good, certainly good times.
Sue Stockdale : [00:02:10] And was it always your expectation or perhaps your family’s expectation that you would then take over the farm? Or did you have aspirations to go and do something else in your career?
Jonathan Cook : [00:02:18] My father never wanted me to. He was, he was a frustrated politician and he would’ve made a very good one, a very intelligent man. That was pretty much stifled. He did parish council work and he was a school governor for quite a few years. So he had other interests to satisfy that desire. I left the farm at 17 exploring my hormones, I suppose you could put it, but I’ve always gravitated back. I think it’s something that’s in the blood. My father wanted me to have a corporate job. He didn’t want me to have to work every weekend, you know, 14, 16, 18 hour days getting up at two o’clock in the morning to calve a cow. He didn’t want that for me. He wanted me to have an easy life. I know it sounds stupid. I would actually chose it [00:03:00] for two years. I worked in an agricultural merchant and the office it was fun. It was a good learning process. I learned quite a lot by dealing with people and I didn’t like being inside that was probably my biggest realization but probably already knew that. It’s not that I, I certainly wasn’t capable of doing it or enjoyed it somewhat whilst I was there, but I’m afraid when outside, it’s in your blood, then I think it’s the land. Actually. I think when you’ve grown up a place I’m tied to it emotionally. I’m tied to it. It’s very hard to imagine being somewhere else. Like when people say they need to go holiday, I actually don’t need to go on harder. I’m actually totally happy here. I like to go meet other people in different places and see how they’re doing things. But to actually have a holiday. That’s not in my way of thinking.
Sue Stockdale : [00:03:46] So I can tell by the energy, in your voice, that you’re loving what you do, what is it that you love about your job?
Jonathan Cook : [00:03:52] Variety, I suppose is one of the interesting parts of it. You really don’t do same thing twice. You might do it over the course of a [00:04:00] year. Haymaking always lasts for a few weeks, but then you need to plan for that. You need to get the barns ready. You need to get the machinery ready. It’s all a process. And I’ve got, you know, every part of the year has a different process. What we need to go through. Nature is just fascinating because it almost presents different problems. And conversely the miracles that you see as well. Always a challenge. There’s never a dull moment. If we have a dry period. What do I feed the cows? Grass stops growing. If its too wet and then they ruin the fields. We’re always subservient to the weather. There’s no get away from the fact that the weather dictates what we do and how we do it. We are selling raw milk as well. I actually get my kick coming from people telling me that my food makes them better. Money doesn’t touch that when somebody comes to you and says, you can’t stop what you’re doing because my digestion is rubbish without you or my skin breaks open, or they just can’t digest food. Or they got really severe IBS. They value what I do. They understand because they want to be involved in it. Cause obviously it’s so important to them. They [00:05:00] want to be involved and I enjoy sharing what I do. So if people come and say, I want to see the cows, I’ll take them to meet the cows and we’ll spend half an hour, an hour stroking cows. Well, what comes better than that, you know? And they are so rewarding, they’re bloody irritating and frustrating at times as well. Like any animal or any person, but majority of the time they’re actually theyre soothing. Yeah.
Sue Stockdale : [00:05:22] I imagine. And as we’re sitting here speaking, we can hear the lovely sounds of some puppies squeaking in the background, which is fantastic. And one sitting right close to us as well here. Tell us a bit more about how you farm and why are you farming the way that you do?
Jonathan Cook : [00:05:35] Historically, we’ve always been a dairy farm here. My dad used to have some pigs when he was younger as well. We do now. We’ve always been high on welfare, so we’ve always looked after the cows very well. Well, we’ve never, ever pushed them to their limits. We’ve always been very mindful that the cow needs to be the cow. So I’ve just taken what my father and grandfather and great grandmother did. I’ll actually, I’m going [00:06:00] back to what my great grandmother and she would have farmed. So now we keep the calves with the cows, which is pretty much commercial suicide on a commercial contract. So, you know, my milk used to go up to Cadbury’s.
Sue Stockdale : the chocolate bar people.
Jonathan Cook : Yes. If you had dairy milk chocolate, there is a chance there could have been some of my milk in it. Yeah. Well, I was very proud of that fact because we produce top quality milk and we got paid a premium for it. But what we get paid is not enough. What is actually didn’t cover half the cost of us producing it. And that’s unsustainable. So we’ve changed from being a very commercial farm where our cows would calf maybe once every year, 14 months, and we would sell the calves off and we would just milk the cows. We weren’t pushing them, but that’s all we did.
So now we’re letting the cows grow the calves. We can’t keep them all. Unfortunately I hope one day we can, we have some more land. We’d be able to do that. But majority or all the calves stay here for at least six weeks with their mothers. Part of the reason we do that is because it’s so easy to do it any other way because they mothers look after them really [00:07:00] well. They grow so well. They get exercise. They learn how to be part of a herd. That’s important, it’s important. And they learn how to graze. So the calves that go off to market, we nearly always top the market because they’re strong calves and the people that are buying those cows to rear on they know that they’re not gonna have any problems with them becuase their health is top. So that’s why I get top money for them, but also the calves that we keep, they grow very well. They’re social animals. They learn how to graze. It’s letting a cow be a cow basically. It’s just, so what we do, something called milk sharing. So the calves are separated at night for was actually less than 12 hours because of the time we get round to it, it’s usually quite late, but the calves are separated at night. So they have time on their own in their own little social groups. And then we get 12 hours of milk because if you forget to get them in, there’s no milk left in the cow in the morning. Absolutely none. So our whole farming in that regard has changed. So we’re trying to go down a regenerative path and it takes quite a few processes to get to the stage where we can actually do what are call mob grazing. So what we’re trying to do is replicate the [00:08:00] ancient way, the Buffalo, who would have grazed these lands. So they would have been kept quite close with predators. So they would be in a very tight pack. They would intensively graze a small area. For a very short amount of time. So the way we will replicate that is by with electric fencing. So we keep them corralled in a small area, but we want the cows to eat the top third of the plant, which is the most nutritious and trample the rest. So by trampling, you get a covering. So the covering keeps the moisture in, you’re breaking the stems of the plants. So you’re feeding the micro biological life. You’re always feeding the soil, but by not eating it all, grazing it down. Intensively you’ve left a lot of soda panels. So. That plant will recover so much quicker because you’ve got the energy that’s already left in the stem that’s left, but also you’ve got the soda panels to rejuvenate that plant. So we’re in this peak of the season, every 21 days, the cows will go over that piece of land. That’s how we anticipated doing. I mean, there are some dairy farmers that are moving their cows five, six times a day.
Sue Stockdale : [00:08:59] But you’re [00:09:00] not?
Jonathan Cook : [00:09:00] Nope, not with it too, but maybe half a day. This year we’re doing a day next year, it’ll be probably half a day. So, as we swap the cows over, as we get them in for milking after milking, they’re going to a different side of the farm. And then at night, when we separate the calves, we’ll then pass them over to another side. So they’ll constantly be swapping sides of the farm and that way we don’t need to use artificial fertilizers. So immediately it’s a benefit to the wildlife and the yield that you get from the grass is just so much better. Because you’re treating the grass, I suppose it’s evolved to be treated. That’s how everything worked in harmony. So we’re trying to do that. And it’s quite a process
Sue Stockdale : [00:09:36] it’s a 24 hour a day life for you. And really I can see the close connection to nature and to the land that you’re farming, but does it make money?
Jonathan Cook : [00:09:46] Good question. We were certainly profitable a few years ago when I was doing it very commercially. I’m not running the cows to the limit, but we were getting a good yield from the cows. We weren’t rearing any calves. Literally all we did was milk cows. We have calves and sold [00:10:00] them and milked cows. So yeah, we are profitable.
Then when we made the stupid idea of actually keeping calves with cows and milking them once a day, which is something which we always worked on twice a day before we met them once a day, the benefits are slightly lifestyle. My biggest one is the health of the cows. Milking once a day has virtually eliminated any lameness problems. Fertility is better cause they’re not athletes anymore. They are Western donkeys now effectively, the milk’s better quality. They’re happier, healthier. And so. I find it very easy to sell my milk because they’re from happy, healthy cows. It’s happy, healthy milk. You know, it’s the nutritional value of my milk, but we don’t feed them soy anymore. We cut soy out of their diet. We still feed a little bit cereals, which we’re trying to get away from, but the alternatives are again, very expensive. I’ve only just given up my contract with Cadburys. So I was still on a commercial price up until a few weeks ago. So now I need to sell all of my milk at a sustainable price. Which is actually five times what I was getting from [00:11:00] Cadburys. So I only need to sell it basically a quarter of the milk to get to where I was with Cadburys I’m not saying that Cadburys were giving us a bad price in the industry. They were very good price and they’re a very good company to work with.
Sue Stockdale : [00:11:10] So how do you find your customers now then if you’ve chosen to finish the contract with Cadbury’s. To who and where do you sell your milk?
Jonathan Cook : [00:11:17] Social media is very good. That’s a very good way, but word of mouth. It’s almost like an organic growth. We’ve been selling raw milk for three years now. And there is a knock-on for people that the health benefits, when people get over the fact that it’s raw and they got past the fact that it’s not going to kill them.
Sue Stockdale : [00:11:32] So tell us what raw is for those listeners that haven’t heard of it before. What is raw milk compared to what you might buy in a supermarket?
Jonathan Cook : [00:11:37] Raw milk is milk. Every other milk that you get is a changed version of. So raw milk is straight from the cow. I mean, it literally is. I put it through two filters and it’s cooled and then you can drink it. So it has all the enzymes that you need to digest it. All of the vitamins, if you think what milk is designed to do, its designed to feed a mammal. [00:12:00] Everything is in. If the cows are fed grass and they’re not stressed, everything is in perfect balance. Proteins carbohydrates, the enzymes, you need to digest it. The proteins. Its the perfect food and we have customers, not many, that pretty much just drink milk because it’s complete food is one of the only complete foods there are. Their health is always very good. And people usually come to us through health. They’ve got to the stage where they’ve given up with the medicines. You know, they’ve tried every single cream for their eczema. They’re on two inhalers for asthma. Their eczema. I mean, having somebody come in, their face was actually cracking, open sores when they spoke, when they were speaking, it was just horrendous. Well, within a month, that’s healed. That’s the satisfaction you’re getting from the product that you’re producing is seeing the impact that it has on other people’s lives. Raw milk has had a really bad rap, mainly dairy industry and pharmaceutical companies don’t want it. Well pharmaceutical companies don’t want people to be healthy. Do they? I think that they did a survey and they found that I [00:13:00] think if you drank raw milk, you get a third less colds a year. It doesn’t sound a lot, but if you buy two packets, of cold and flu syrup and there’s 60 of million of us in the country. Well, the mathematics is quite impressive, so they don’t want us to do it. All of the kids growing up, when the dentist take x-ray of our, my sister and I, our jaws, they can’t believe the density, the bone density and the density of the teeth. I’m like, wow. You know, we just don’t see that.
Sue Stockdale : [00:13:25] It’s the calcium?
Jonathan Cook : [00:13:26] Yeah. Because it’s completely available and pasteurized milk, it analyzes its there. Yes, it’s all there because you haven’t got the enzymes and all the proteins are denatured. You can’t actually absorb it. And it’s a travesty what they do to milk, to be honest with you, I used to break my heart, seeing it, go off on a tanker and knowing I spend that much time making sure it was clean, healthy, you know, the best milk I could for them to go and destroy it that’s not logical.
Sue Stockdale : [00:13:53] I can imagine. I can imagine how difficult that was for you. And now that you’ve got control of the whole process, really from start to finish and seeing [00:14:00] your customers, it must give you a great deal of satisfaction. As our podcast is about inspiration, Jon, I’m wondering where do you get your inspiration from or what or who inspires you?
Jonathan Cook : [00:14:09] Thank you for the question. Cause this is a hard one to necessarily actually pinpoint when you’ve just living the dream every single day. I think the miracle of bringing life into the world. Calving cows. I don’t know. There’s something always, something very special about bringing a life into the world and the responsibility of that as well, what inspires me is doing something different and seeing other people that are doing something different. So nature is probably one of my inspirations. I suppose.
Sue Stockdale : [00:14:33] You’re reminding me as you’re talking about a recent podcast episode where we interviewed Paul Rose, who’s our first Access to Inspiration ambassador. And he talked about people having lost the connection to nature and perhaps part of the pandemic that we’ve all experienced around the world recently that being in lockdown at home has perhaps enabled us to just reflect and see nature in a different way. What’s your take on how society as a whole is [00:15:00] disconnected with nature and what impact that has?
Jonathan Cook : [00:15:03] I think now they’re very disconnected and we see that with our new customers that come. They ask very sensible questions, but from a place of disconnect, the basics of life have been missed. Not just, Hey, milk comes in a bottle in the supermarket, but the actual mechanics of life and nature and how the seasons work and what difference it makes to the animals and the people, and the fact that the milk will taste different in May than it does in August. And why would that be? It’s just milk. Well, no, it’s not just milk. So taking people around the cows actually opening their eyes. Especially the children because the children are great. We have some schoolchildren come here I think three or four or five years old, five years old. And the questions they ask because they see things, they do see things, they ask some really intense questions and you go, wow. I actually don’t know the answer to that. I like to think about it or go and research it, I suppose, in some way that’s a bit of an inspiration as well. And that opens your eyes to other things. And that’s good. Fun too.
Sue Stockdale : [00:15:59] So you’re an educator [00:16:00] really, as well as a farmer?
Jonathan Cook : [00:16:01] I very much see myself as an educator. That’s part of what we do. Absolutely. And it’s really important. I think it’s vitally important that people understand how food becomes food, because people think that food comes from supermarkets. And it doesn’t very much doesn’t it, it was always a farmer at the front end of it. My milk isn’t cheap. It’s not cheap for a reason because it’s good quality. The way I’m doing it is to make sure that the high welfare we’re not destroying land. We’re actually building carbon soil. And when I explain it to people, they go, Oh yeah, we’re on board. Okay. Totally understand. Education is so important because a hundred years ago, everybody knew a farmer or somebody who worked on a farm that their uncles, their dads, their grandparents. So where a lot of this ridiculous food eating disorders have come about. They would have gardens, they grew their own food. They knew how hard it was to get vegetables from seed to plate, rather than just walk into a supermarket. They understood the processes. So they valued it far greater. And it [00:17:00] wasn’t all done with the machines. A lot of these guys did it by hand. I think everybody should grow at least one crop. Even if it’s in a window box, grow crop of potatoes, just one. And then you can learn about nature. Oh God. And I have two chickens, best waste disposal system you will ever have and you get eggs and they’ll be the best you’ve ever had. What could be better I feel like it’s my responsibility to be an educator. Farmer’s unfortunately had an organization called the Milk Marketing board. I say, unfortunately, because what it did, it actually removed the farmer from actually the selling process. So their milk was just picked up and they were given a price for it. So they didn’t need to, you know, it’s like a builder, he builds a house and it falls down and you say, I want at my house built, do you know any good builders? No, I’m sorry. I don’t. It’s the same with the food. Does the food taste good? If it tastes rubbish and makes you ill? You’re not gonna go back for anymore. And so the farmer lost his connection with the end user. So also the farmer couldn’t say to him, we’re having a rough time because there’s no grass in the fields or it’s [00:18:00] so wet or, you know, that daily update that people got every single day, they don’t get it anymore. And now we’re five generations maybe away from having any direct contact with a farmer. It’s a mystery for a lot of these people. And that’s sad. And I think COVID, we certainly noticed here that a lot of people, while they’ve been walking, we’ve had a lot of new customers because they’ve just been walking and lots have said, wow, we didn’t know this was on our doorstep because everywhere they went was in a car. People say, well, we just didn’t notice here. This is a goldmine. Yeah, it is. And now you’re enjoying it.
Sue Stockdale : [00:18:33] So there’s been some upsides. I wanted to take you to have a step back and actually think about what is a life in farming taught you about you or about society?
Jonathan Cook : [00:18:44] You can’t control anything. Mother nature is a very strong force. If it’s going to be, it’s going to be that’s one of the things I probably most respectful of. You have very little control over a lot of things and you just have to roll with it. So rolling with it. It’s probably one of my things that [00:19:00] I’ve learned.
Sue Stockdale : [00:19:00] And if you were to pass on a bit of wisdom to our listeners, from your perspective as a farmer, John, what would it be? A bit of life’s wisdom for us.
Jonathan Cook : [00:19:08] Value what is important in life – health and we are what we eat.
Sue Stockdale : [00:19:12] Well. I think that with your enthusiasm, for farming and for health and for connection to nature, I think you’ve done a great job today in our conversation to extol the virtues of that. Jon.
Jonathan Cook : [00:19:23] Thank you.
Sue Stockdale : [00:19:23] So one final question. If people want to find out more about Doras dairy and about you and the farm, how might they do that on social media? Where would they find you?
Jonathan Cook : [00:19:31] On social media at Dora’s dairy, raw milk and grass fed beef. I believe it’s on Facebook, but Dora’s Dairy will get you there. And obviously through the website, Okay.
Sue Stockdale : [00:19:41] Fantastic. We’ll put links to those on the show notes, and it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you today, Jon. Thank you very much.
Jonathan Cook : [00:19:47] Likewise. Thanks, Sue
Sue Stockdale : [00:19:51] wow Im super chilled. After speaking to Jon Cook, I really enjoyed being in the outdoors and hearing him, express his love for the work that he does and looking [00:20:00] after the cows and their milk tastes great too. Please head over to our website, accesstoinspiration.org and let us know what was most impactful from this podcast for you. We’d love to connect with you also on Twitter or on Instagram, where we are access to inspiration. In the next episode, I will be speaking to Nontu Mghabi another of our pioneers in this series. She was the first African female to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven consecutive days. An amazing feat. Wow. I’m just exhausted to even think about that challenge. So I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from her. I hope you can join me then.
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