Regenerative farming: First Milk and Yeo Valley partner up to launch ‘regenerative milk pool’

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags First milk Dairy Milk Sustainability regenerative agriculture Uk

A group of First Milk farmers that follow ‘nature-positive’ farming principles will supply Yeo Valley Production as part of a 'forward-thinking' partnership.

Yeo Valley Production manufacturers organic and conventional dairy products, from liquid milk and yogurts to ice cream. First Milk, a British dairy co-op which has embraced regenerative farming in the form of grazing-based dairy production and field-level actions that improve soil health, first rolled out its regenerative farming program in 2021 and has since introduced a monetary incentive for farmers who adopt nature-friendly actions. Around 90% of the co-op’s farmer members – who are responsible for 96% of its milk supply – had signed up to the program in its first year.

Speaking at the National Farmers Union conference in February 2023, chief executive Shelagh Hancock described regenerative farming as “not only a way to sustain, but to build something back.” She explained that ‘it’s going to take years’ to grow back topsoil that has been depleted, but the co-op will re-test soil organic matter in around five years in a bid to better understand which regenerative practices have worked best.

Now, a group of First Milk farmers in England’s southwest will form a new conventional regenerative milk pool to supply Yeo Valley. Recruitment for the new group has commenced and First Milk members withing the catchment area will be invited to join, though other interested farmers can also enquire.

‘Great farming, producing healthy food’

Rob Sexton, CEO of Yeo Valley Production, has praised the new ‘forward-thinking’ partnership. “We’re excited to be working with the First Milk team and bringing our experience to this forward thinking and nature positive conventional milk partnership,” he said. “We are passionate about producing nutritious, affordable foods that are farmed in harmony with nature. This partnership will ensure great farming, producing natural, healthy food, is both affordable and scalable. We look forward to working closely with First Milk and their amazing farmers to nurture and nourish both people and the planet.”

First Milk’s chief executive Shelagh Hancock added: “As the Regenerative co-op, we firmly believe that this approach to farming is the way to continue to produce affordable, nutritious food whilst addressing the growing climate and nature challenges we face. We currently operate the largest regenerative farming programme in the UK dairy sector, and we’re delighted to have agreed this exciting partnership with Yeo Valley Production, which will see us broaden this activity further, demonstrating that great tasting dairy can be a force for good.”

Do consumers understand ‘regenerative farming’?

While improving soil health has become a key pillar in many dairy farmers’ sustainability initiatives – and measures to improve soil health form part of the UK Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ Sustainable Farming Incentive - Dairy UK chief executive Judith Bryans warned that the industry’s efforts may not be easy to understand from a consumer standpoint.

Speaking at the 2023 NFU Conference​, Bryans revealed that consumer research conducted by the industry body revealed that shoppers aren’t entirely clear on what ‘regenerative agriculture’ stands for – and warned that the industry was too focused on talking to government and industry stakeholders about the sector’s environmental progress rather than to regular shoppers.

She said: “We have been doing a lot of work on what consumers have been looking for on sustainability across the generations…They generally understand ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon’ but they don’t understand ‘regenerative agriculture’. So if we want to talk to them about [it], we have to find a way to talk about something that is a term that they do understand and find the right messaging.”

Bryans added that Dairy UK’s research had shown that consumers were most engaged with messages around biodiversity and renewables.

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