Metroplus

Of milk maids and dairy farms

A dairy farmer tends to his cows. Photo: H. Vibhu

A dairy farmer tends to his cows. Photo: H. Vibhu   | Photo Credit: H.Vibhu

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Kochi’s small network of dairy farmers and milk plants provides an alternate source of quality milk to consumers

Come rain or shine Thilothamma, 73, is there every morning with her bottles of milk. She has been doing this for a long time, something she is not willing to give up despite muffled protests from her children who are all well settled. For her it is not just the feeling of being independent, it is a service.

In these times of soaring milk prices and hot debates on the quality of milk brought in from neighbouring States to be supplied here smallholders like Thilothamma provide a source of hope. And making them more competitive could be a powerful tool in raising nutrition levels, improving livelihoods, generating employment, and most importantly ensuring supply of quality milk to local consumers.

There was a time not long ago when you could spot cows roaming the streets of the city and its suburbs. The city is going through a developmental boom and the suburbs have turned satellite towns breaking at its seams trying to accommodate the ever growing flow from the city. The small dairy holdings, at least most of them that were there for generations were crowded out. Today, they find their farming areas shrink.

“Another reason is that the children or the next generation are not prepared to take over the family business, which was built up with a lot of hard work. And they have their reasons too, the most common being it is not lucrative,” says Sheila Thomas, who along with a group of friends, has set up a milk processing plant at Kakkanad and packages milk under the brand name Ashrey and Ahawah.

There are other collection and distribution units like the Tripunithura Ksheera Vyavasaya Cooperative Society established in 1962 that get fresh cow’s milk from smallholders, and they pack and distribute it. As a result most of the dairy farms now centre around a milk cooperative or a processing facility.

“We insist that the farmers give us the milk within one hour of milking. Most of our suppliers are located in areas that they can bring in the milk in one or two hours at the most. On an average we get 1,800 litres a day from farmers from Perumbavoor and Vaikom with whom we have a tie-up. It is when milk does not reach a plant within the specified time that preservatives are added. And we don’t want that to happen with us,” adds Sheila.

The milk society in Tripunthura had 594 members when it started. “At some point down the line a rule was passed that members be classified as nominal and active. The latter are those that supply milk regularly. So today we have only 42 members. Most of the others have given up this occupation. With people moving out of large holdings and high-rise apartments taking its place there is shortage of space for those who reared cows. Added to that is the rising costs of cattle feed and labour. It is not a very profitable occupation any longer. There are a few farmers like Biju Mathew, Rameshan and Jolly George who supply the bulk of the 1,800 litres we procure every day. This milk is packaged and distributed. We still get enquiries; there is huge demand but the supply chain is limited,” informs Bindu, secretary of the society.

Smallholder dairy production will be able to reach its full potential only if some of these challenges can be addressed.

Dairy farmers lack the skills to manage their enterprises, have no access to support services like production and marketing advice or have little or no capital to reinvest, and are often handicapped by small herd sizes and low milk yields.

“These are issues that need to be corrected. If given government subsidies or if there is a body, like say the Rubber Board where the cattle farmers can go for expert advice the smallholders can go on to play a much more inclusive role. The sector is still not organised,” feels Sheila, who managed a cattle farm of her own at Puthencruz before she gave it up owing to shortage of skilled labour.

Supply for quality milk in the city and its suburbs are clearly short of the demand. This often results in consumers settling for anything that is available readily. Jube Paulose, who chucked a bank job for cattle farming started off with 40 cows and now runs a full-fledged dairy farm with 150 cows.

He supplies, on an average 1,300-1,500 litres to Acsah Organic Private Limited.” The effort to start and maintain a farm is huge. We have our own transit facility and milk from our farm reaches the plant two times a day. We don’t supply to anyone else apart from the a few local people who buy it from the farm located at Paniyeli Poru. “There is a growing demand and awareness for quality milk. I tried out a sample survey among the 140 residents in the apartment complex at Palarivattom where I stay. We gave each one of them a half litre packet of milk and the response has been overwhelming. We now plan to supply milk here. I believe that the end user response is most important,” says Jube.

There are farmers who manage two or three cows, have a consistent clientele, and cut production costs by doing most of the work themselves including delivering it to the consumer. Ramesh Naik, mechanical engineer who retired from a private company, got into this when one of his daughters ‘conspired’ with her uncle to have two calves ‘delivered’ to his house. “We have three cows and all of us are involved in taking care of them. We have a person to milk the cows. Output is varied but on an average we manage to get 15 litres of milk which I supply to the society at Tripunithura. It is a tough job and frankly we are in a dilemma whether to continue this or stop,” he says.

Growing demand for quality milk, and dairy products, driven by population growth, rising incomes, offers market opportunities for smallholders. Small milk processing plants in various parts of the city, growing number of farmers and a steady supply of quality milk is a dream. As of now these holders continue to play a small but vital role in the supply chain of quality milk.

As Sheila says, theirs is an invaluable service to the community.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 7:50:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/of-milk-maids-and-dairy-farms/article6228928.ece

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