Jocelyn Newmarch
Jocelyn Newmarch

Milking it

Have you ever tasted real milk? I’m not talking about the insipid, 0% fat, homogenised milk you buy from your local supermarket. I’m as city slicker as they come, but after a trip to the local petting farm (Sleepy Hollow, are you still there?) in primary school, I drank milk straight from the cow. It was thick and yellow and creamy and absolutely delicious. The memory of that milk made me realise what we city consumers sacrifice in the name of convenience.

Last week, I tasted that milk once again. Yellow milk comes from Jersey cows, who produce the creamiest milk of all. Shopping in Howick, a small town in the Natal Midlands, on the last weekend before Christmas, we found “almost organic” full-cream Jersey milk (“from happy cows”) for sale at R6,50 a litre. The makers explained that, given the Midlands climate, cutting out chemicals entirely was not possible, but they used as few as they could and never antibiotics. The milk was rich and delicious and worth every penny.

Shopping this week at my local Spar, full-cream milk was being sold at R9,50 and upwards a litre, for the usual mass-packaged, chemically adulterated rubbish. What’s up with that?

Simple economics will tell you that milk should cost more in a Jo’burg supermarket, rather than in the heart of the Midlands, given the cost of transport and storage. Ethics may tell you that milk should cost more in a big city rather than a small town, as rural people are more likely to be poorer.

But my milk saga is also a striking example of how we often get shafted without even knowing it. That farmer was able to produce better milk cheaper, on a small scale. Yet our supermarkets, which claim to offer lower prices (although Spar is not a good example of this, I know) offer inferior products at higher prices — which we just play dumb and accept.

I’m sure most people will have followed the bread price-fixing story with interest and even outrage. The dairy industry, however, doesn’t appear to have been much better, with dairy processors finding innovative ways to dispose of excess milk. Farmers are paid around R2,10 a litre for milk, as of May last year, but their costs amount to around R1,70 a litre.

Take a look at my colleague Tumi Makgetla’s story on this issue, from May 2007.