East Anglian dairy farmers fight back in war over milk prices by branching out
Dairy farmers in East Anglia have shown great entrepreneurial flair in the face of volatile milk and feed prices, diversifying to help their businesses succeed.
Here Ssarah Chambers, food and farming correspeondent, looks at some of the innovative ways our farmers are tackling the current issue.
• See more on the milk price battle locally here.Jonathan Crickmore is hoping to take the local food scene by storm with his latest innovation, Bungay Butter, later this year.
The dairy farmer, based at Fen Farm, Bungay, started diversifying from milk production two years ago with Baron Bigod, his own take on Brie-de-Meaux, which is thought to be the only traditional raw milk cheese of its kind produced in the UK.
At the same time, he has been changing his herd over from Holsteins to Montbeliardes, the breed traditionally used in France for cheese-making. The 850-strong herd with 300 milking cows is currently around a third Montbeliarde, a third Holstein and a third cross-bred between the two.
He also sells raw milk from his cows, with about 150 litres a day sold directly to customers who visit his on-farm vending machine. He’s started an on-line venture which delivers around 100 litres a week and also sells around 200 litres a week via Foulgers Dairy of Woodbridge, which runs a doorstep delivery service. The rules are stringent around the sale of raw milk, but Jonathan believes that it tastes better and is worth the trouble.
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Over the next three or four weeks, work should be completed in a new buttery parlour taking shape in the farmyard. Jonathan plans to produce a traditional-style butter, made by souring the milk.
“When milk drops in price and we are not making any money from it, the cheese is keeping us going and it’s just so much more of an exciting thing to do – and enjoyable,” says Jonathan.
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Fiona Provan, who runs the Calf at Foot micro-dairy at Somerleyton, near Lowestoft, is an outspoken critic of today’s dairy industry.
“I want to turn the dairy industry on its head,” she says.
Fiona prides herself on being a high welfare operation, unashamed to charge a premium price for what she believes is a premium product – raw milk from her small, 30-head herd of grass-fed Jerseys crossed with Red Poll which she grazes on 25 acres of the Somerleyton estate. She averages just 60 litres a day from her 11 milkers, which she sells for £2.50 a litre, but hopes to build up to a viable 90 litres.
“I’m going back to what milk used to be and going back to real milk – taking all the processes out including pasteurisation and homogenisation,” she says.
“What we do is we don’t take the calf off the cow – we share the milk with the calf. We sacrifice quantity for quality – the welfare comes first,” she says.
She sells her milk via the farm gate and the internet. Fiona started on her dairy venture about two years ago, and faced a number of setbacks before finding a home for her herd at Somerleyton. She works a 12-hour day, and is still working towards getting the business to stand on its own two feet.
Jason and Katharine Salisbury set up Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses in 2004 after Jason received the shattering news that the dairy herd he looked after at Coddenham was being broken up.
They use milk from their own herd of pedigree Guernseys at Creeting St Mary, near Stowmarket, to create hand-made cheeses by traditional methods, including Suffolk Gold and Suffolk Blue.
In 2007, they bought a 109 acre farm at Creeting, and built new dairy buildings.
“You could say if you have nothing to start with, you have nothing to lose,” says Katharine. “There were no grants around, so it was difficult to get started. We knew that our product was rare in this area, so demand for soft cheeses would be there. We just had to find the market and sell the product.
“Since we started in 2004, we have grown from selling cheeses at farmers markets and supplying farm shops directly, to wholesalers coming to our farm and distributing nearly 20 tonnes a year of cheeses themselves.
“We have a garden shed in our farm yard with a fridge, and bottled milk is sold via a honesty box at £1.00 a litre. This is soon to be replaced with a vending machine.”