Bureaucracy meets country life on a field trip to the dairy farm: Emily Green reports on a Ministry of Agriculture visit to find out exactly what happens at the cutting edge of food production

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The Independent Online
THE SIGN at the gate of Woodbridge Farm, north Dorset, reads 'Reps by appointment only'. The tenant farmer, Michael Davies, 52, is a busy man. Yet today, he waits nervously in starched white smock and cap. It is 3pm, time for the afternoon milking, but he is expecting some reps worth seeing.

He is not sure what they want, but when brass from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food want to call, shepherded by executives from the National Farmers' Union, it seems prudent to entertain them.

Moreover, maybe he will ask them about that 200,000 litres worth of quota he would like. His guests will include the ministry's new head of milk, the past head of milk, the principal in charge of quotas, the lawyer in charge of quotas and the principal in charge of the European sector; under the current, tangled quota system, leasing this much extra quota from 'non-producing producers' would cost him pounds 50,000.

He has a speech of sorts prepared. He wants them to know that he began farming 30 years ago with pounds 500. Today he works 400 acres with his son and two hired hands. He has 150 Friesians, 125 of which are milking at any one time. He grows corn for silage, and milks them twice a day, rising at 4.45am and going to bed at 10pm. Moreover, he makes and sells 10-12 tonnes of Dorset Blue Vinny cheese a year, all by hand, all with raw milk. Then he keeps pigs, which consume the whey. A van arrives at 3.05pm, disgorging a group of hot civil servants and NFU executives, all wearing wellies. Their arrival coincides with a man arriving with a silage analysis. They listen attentively as its Ph balance is described, and thank him profusely. Never has silage been so fascinating.

Then Mr Davies leads the group to his lawn to relate his story, emphasising how he managed to pull through the introduction of quotas in 1984 when his parents were gravely ill. He speaks for 10 minutes, even confessing to once having siphoned milk off to avoid a fine for overproduction. He describes the eight years of trial and error that went into reviving Dorset Blue Vinny.

Then comes the tour of the cheese-making room, followed by the cold store. The entourage becomes alert and avid: the cheese smells wonderful. How much salt does he use? How does he blue the cheese? How much do the moulds cost? One asks Mr Davies how often he eats it himself. 'We don't,' he replies. 'It's too expensive.'

As the tour moves on to the rotary milking parlour, the officials crowd a balcony overlooking a mechanical carousel. It carries eight cows at a time, emptying the udders of each of some five gallons of milk. Asked how the cows like it, Mr Davies said: 'They love it. They'd fuss if they didn't. See how happy they look?'

Back to the farmhouse kitchen. Mr Davies and his wife, Christine, hurriedly brew tea and serve fruitcake. Mr Davies approaches the person he thinks is the principal in charge of quotas, a blonde woman with blue eyes and matching outfit. She knows the quota system is in need of reform, but just now she is on a fact-finding mission. Finally, the purpose of the visit, made earlier this week, is revealed. 'We try to organise these trips every year or so,' the organiser from the NFU said. 'Partly because civil servants change jobs and we need to brief new ones. Mostly because they are used to dealing with cows on paper. Seeing them in real life is an advantage, really.'

(Photographs omitted)