Finding innovative ways to provoke discussion and engage people with where their food comes from and how we value it as a society is an interesting challenge. This is exactly what Nessie Reid’s Milking Parlour exhibition in Bristol city centre set out to do.

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Between the 21st and 25th April, thousands of visitors came to Anchor Square to see Elisa and Meadowsweet, two Guernsey show cows owned by local farmer Nick Parfitt. Visitors could watch the cows being milked three times a day as well as speak to the farmer and volunteers, write their views and questions on the notice boards, and take part in the daily discussion sessions.

Livestock in the city is a rare occurrence in the UK today, with the era of cattle markets and horsepower long gone, and the majority of modern industrial dairy operations hidden away. It is no wonder that there is a disconnect with where our food comes from, including both meat and dairy as well as all the products we derive from plants.

For a large percentage of the population, the way food is produced is largely out of sight and thus out of mind. For some who visited the Milking Parlour it was their first time seeing a cow being milked and watching the milk coming out of a cow, a direct realisation of the actual source of the many dairy products so many of us consume daily.

In 2013, Nessie attended the Sustainable Food Trust’s True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming conference in London. It was here that she first started thinking about the consequences of cheap food. The conference addressed issues relating to the fact that it is currently more profitable to farm unsustainably than it is to farm sustainably. This perpetuates widespread negative impacts on the environment and on public health. With the current crisis in the dairy industry, which has seen the price of milk fall below bottled water – leading to the closure of many dairy farms – Nessie felt it was the perfect example of an economic system gone wrong.

IMG_1399Cheap prices skew our perception of the real value of food. A volunteer at the Milking Parlour filled a bottle with milk still warm from the cow and flung it into a bathtub along with the other bottles from previous milkings, commenting “This is how little we value milk as a society, we are pretty much just pouring it down the drain.” The Milking Parlour highlighted some of the stark realities of the economic underpinnings of our current food system.

The purpose of this exhibition was not to promote the dairy industry, or to romanticise farming, but to highlight a number of serious issues within our food system. Dairy farms have a significant environmental impact, with a range of contributing factors including pollution from slurry, enteric methane emissions and dependence on imported livestock feed that is often grown intensively on deforested land and therefore has a large carbon footprint. There are also significant animal welfare concerns in the industry. These problems have largely been generated by the underlying drive to produce cheap food, forcing farmers to lower standards and intensify production.

The loss of our small dairy farms is troubling, with many people unaware of the long-term impact this will have. Speaking to local dairy farmer and owner of the cows, Nick told me that not so long ago there were 30 dairy farms that he knew of in a four mile radius of his farm. But now only three are left. What was once a highly social and community-based industry has become incredibly isolated.

Was it worth bringing two cows into the city centre to engage people in these issues? The Milking Parlour successfully drew thousands of people into numerous conversations about how food is produced. Not all of it was positive, concerns about the welfare of the animals were raised by animal rights campaigners in response to the exhibition. Despite assurances from Nessie, who had made every effort to ensure the welfare and safety of Elisa and Meadowsweet, two show cows who she has built a trusting relationship with over the last year. But this multifaceted discussion, both at the site itself and via various media channels, is all part of the dialogue that goes with an act of provocative and proactive engagement.

13062926_1051598244901821_7727856846601033175_oTo tackle such polarisation in the dairy debate, education and discussion is vital. Perhaps this kind of exhibition is just what is needed if we are to succeed in putting these issues at the forefront of public awareness. Farmer Nick has realised the importance of this and says he would like to have more people visit his farm so they can learn about cows and dairying.

Facing some of the difficult realities of our current food system, and raising questions such as “why is milk cheaper than bottled water?” is a brave step towards bringing often hidden issues out into the open. When asked to share how she felt the exhibition was received, Nessie said “Over the course of the 5 days, I had some of the most moving and insightful conversations and interactions with people I have ever had, spanning myriad socio-economic groups. Many visitors told me they had never seen a cow in the flesh before, let alone see one being milked. The Milking Parlour did what it set out to do: it got people talking and exploring their relationship with food.” We cannot afford to let the complex issues involved in agriculture go unnoticed, as we all rely on these systems to provide our food.

The Milking Parlour was commissioned by Cape Farewell, an international not-for-profit arts programme based at the University of Arts London: Chelsea, with it’s chief mission to instigate a cultural response to the climate challenge. 

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