Milking local demand for the ‘white stuff’
As the pandemic continues it has been a busy time for local milk producers.
The surge in business comes despite reports that some farms are having to pour thousands of litres away as demand plummeted following the closure of restaurants and coffee outlets.
From the sale of raw milk via the farmyard vending machine to supplying in-demand local farm shops and other small outlets now rushed off their feet providing home deliveries during the now extended lockdown, local dairy businesses are weathering the coronavirus outbreak.
Halton Farms on Chance Hall Lane at Moreton-Cum-Alcumlow, which has a dairy herd of 530 cows, has seen a rise in raw milk sales via its vending machine from an average of 60 litres a day to 170 litres. Cheese, eggs and raw whey butter are sold from vending machines and the farm also sells Wrights pies, oatcakes and compost.
Karen Halton, who runs the business with husband Tom and son Jack and a team of workers, said their business plan for pasteurising was to sell 3,500 litres per week in the first six months but in the first two weeks they sold more than 6,000 litres.
The farm has also produced its first 1,000-litre batch of milk for doorstep deliveries, working with The Little Doorstep Dairy based in Brereton, which takes milk to homes in Congleton, Sandbach, Scholar Green and the surrounding areas.
“We started from zero doorsteps two weeks ago and now have more than 450 and rising,” said Mrs Halton.
She added: “We considered pasteurising milk four years ago when we installed the raw milk vending machine but couldn't afford the set-up costs. We have now set up a very small scale dairy and will invest as it grows.”
Mrs Halton explained that the UK dairy industry produced 13bn litres of milk per year.
She said 50% was for the liquid market - shops, supermarkets, catering, service industry and schools etc while around 30% was for the cheese industry and about 20% for producing butter.
As far as demand for milk was concerned, she said: “Supermarkets are still busy but all service industries have shut down. We need to find a home for that milk, so please drink more of it!”
In Twemlow on the outskirts of Holmes Chapel, milk produced at the family-run 500-acre Bidlea Dairy is in demand at local farm shops, garages and other venues supplying their communities during the lockdown.
Ray Brown, a former NFU county chairman for Cheshire, runs the business with wife Jill and their two sons Adam and Ryan and their wives, both called Becky.
They keep an almost 1,000-strong herd of Holstein-Friesian cows.
Bidlea's own shop is busy and because of the 2m rule is now operating in a space at the end of the dairy.
Mr Brown said: “It's ideal as people are not enclosed. We had space at the end of the dairy behind a roller shutter door so there is plenty of room for people to wait while they are being served.
“We had to move the shop as it had been at the entrance to a barn which we needed to use for a wedding a while back but where it is at the moment is ideal.”
The shop sells its own skimmed, semi-skimmed and whole milk as well as cream. “People buy their own glass bottles and keep coming back to fill them up - it's great for sustainability. Ninety% of milk sold at the shop is sold in this way,” he said.
The shop also sells eggs from Pace’s, of Medhurst Green, near Congleton.
He added: “We are another outlet that stops people from having to go to supermarkets.”
Cream from the farm's milk is taken to Hillbilly Ice Cream at Blaze Farm, Wildboarclough. “It comes back to us as ice cream which we sell. We were selling 200 one-litre tubs a week in March, it's been a massive hit and so early in the year,” Mr Brown added.
While Bidlea Farm is keeping it local as the family dairy business continues during the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Brown said he believed Covid-19 was going to make a difference to attitudes.
“Hopefully the Government will concentrate on food security in future,” he said. “Maybe something like this needed to come along so we realise food security is an issue. Planes have stopped flying and ferries and ships could stop and we are less than 70% self-sufficient. We need to be careful that we do not throw any more of that away.”
He added: “From consumers there's definitely support locally, but margins are so tight, especially with so much volatility in the dairy industry.
“People are being told to pour milk away and yet people are crying out for milk.”
He suggested there needed to be a similar organisation to the former Milk Marketing Board. “We need to have some sort of regulatory body to bring some balance in the milk industry as it is crazy at present,” he said.
Mr Brown added: “Producers aligned to the supermarkets are feeling the pain of over-supply - and that pain is being shared by half of dairy producers. It's devastating for those businesses.”
Local outlets selling Bidlea dairy products include Glebe Farm Shop, Astbury; Porter’s Garage, West Heath, Congleton; Hall Farm Shop, Alsager; Godfrey C Williams and Son, Sandbach; Jane Bostock Travel, Hightown, Congleton; Goostrey Village Store.
In his latest blog, NFU county chairman for Cheshire, Richard Blackburn, said: “Supply chains involving food have altered, with many eateries closing down, meaning their suppliers have lost a massive part of their market. Sadly, they're still able to pass on their losses to their suppliers, the farmers, who ultimately take the hit.
“Freshways, the milk processors who supply large coffee shop chains, have reduced their milk price and delayed payments by a month to farmers. This is devastating to the farmers involved. However, it doesn't stop there. Freshways have milk processed by many other dairies who in turn have their own farmers. There must be some form of support from the Government put in place temporarily to prop up these businesses. Allowing them to fail will have disastrous consequences.”
Mr Blackburn added: “Fairness is all we have ever asked for with clarity throughout the supply chain and openness on how food is produced so that our customers, the public, can make informed decisions at purchase. Perhaps now people who buy the produce will remember the British farmers who produced it - the small local shops and butchers who got it on the shelves and in many cases delivered it.
“Will they remember the so-called unskilled workers who suddenly became key workers on farms, processing lines in abattoirs and dairies, drivers transporting human and animal food around the country?
“Will they remember how pollution dropped massively due to the drop in flights, yet cow numbers stayed the same?
“Only time will tell, but they should if they want to keep this kingdom united.”