As the milk industry suffers, Tom Levitt reports on the rise of the microdairy.

The prevailing narrative of the milk industry is a depressing one. Supermarkets sell milk as a loss leader, consumers have become used to buying it as a cheap, basic product and, for dairy farmers, the margins can be frighteningly small. Their only solution, say industry experts, is to scale up: increase their herd size, cut costs and produce as much milk as they can, as efficiently as possible. For smaller, family-sized farms, with little capital to expand, this inevitably means an exit from dairying.

Tragically, in a country with a long tradition of milk production and the perfect conditions for grass-based dairy systems, we are perilously close to dropping below 10,000 dairy farmers in England and Wales (the current figure is about 13,000)—a drop of 20,000 in 20 years. Scotland has only 900.

However, those vulnerable farmers are discovering an alternative, which allows them to stay in milk production, increase their margin and reconnect consumers with the traditions of dairy farming and the almost forgotten joys of creamy-top milk. It’s called microdairying: farmers bypassing the major processors and supermarkets and producing, bottling and selling their cows’ milk themselves.

Half a century ago, the countryside was full of dairy farmers bottling and selling some or all of their own milk locally, but the growth in supermarkets and the switch to refrigerated lorries sounded the death knell for many. No milk company is going to send a lorry down a small country road every other day to fetch a few hundred gallons of milk.

In 2006, the Norton family, who run a 60-cow herd near Norwich, were on the brink of quitting. ‘The milk price had been so low that we had to do something,’ says Emily Norton. ‘We looked at selling the cows or increasing the herd size, but that would have ruined the balance of our mixed arable and livestock farm.’ They installed a pasteurising and bottling plant and now sell almost half their milk within a 20-mile radius.

‘We’re bringing back something people can’t get in supermarkets,’ adds Nick Snelgar, who started his business from scratch last year in the village of Martin, Hampshire. ‘No one can do it as fresh as us. We can milk the cows at 9am and have it on your doorstep by 9am the next morning.’ He plans to have a herd of 17 cows by the spring, enough, he says, for a viable business. ‘We were told the only people who can make money out of dairying are mega companies. I don’t believe that’s true and I aim to prove it.’

Although there are no figures on the number of UK microdairies, farmers and industry experts are already excitedly talking about rep- licating the success of microbreweries, which number more than 1,000. ‘There’s no reason why we couldn’t see microdairies all over the country,’

Susan Garbett and her husband, Julian, who run a 40-cow, free-range herd at Holmleigh Dairy in Gloucestershire, were also considered ‘too small to survive’. ‘It was just uneconomical to bring milk tankers to us,’ she explains. They now deliver milk in recyclable glass bottles to 600 local residents. ‘People appreciate that it’s a local product. They drive past our fields and see the cows that provide their milk every week.’

It’s not just about local provenance. Milk from most microdairies is being sold unhomogenised. Even the semi-skimmed varieties are sold with the creamy top, a treat the younger generation has been educated away from, says Sid Betteridge, who runs Mabel’s Farm dairy, a 40-cow microdairy near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire.

‘We’re bringing back something people can’t get in supermarkets,’ adds Nick Snelgar, who started his business from scratch last year in the village of Martin, Hampshire. ‘No one can do it as fresh as us. We can milk the cows at 9am and have it on your doorstep by 9am the next morning.’ He plans to have a herd of 17 cows by the spring, enough, he says, for a viable business. ‘We were told the only people who can make money out of dairying are mega companies. I don’t believe that’s true and I aim to prove it.’

Although there are no figures on the number of UK microdairies, farmers and industry experts are already excitedly talking about replicating the success of microbreweries, which number more than 1,000. ‘There’s no reason why we couldn’t see microdairies all over the country,’ says Mr Snelgar. ‘Milk is far more relevant to people’s daily lives than beer. It’s a staple food. People may see it as boring or tasteless, and it’s true that it’s become that way, but we can change that.’

He’s not alone in his optimism. ‘Just as with bread and beer, milk has huge potential for innovation,’ points out food-chain expert Clive Black, head of research at Shore Capital Stockbrokers. ‘There’s a growing market for exclusivity, taste and localism. People are well informed now by the internet, travel and education and want choice and individuality.’ NFU Dairy Board chairman Rob Harrison agrees: ‘People want to buy from someone they know. They don’t necessarily want their money to go to big companies, so the opportunity is there to create your own local brand, support the local economy and keep cows in the countryside.’

The microdairy model is already attracting new entrants, such as Josh Healy, who runs a 12-cow organic operation near Oxford. He delivers his milk in glass bottles to about 250 regular customers, most of whom are within five miles of the farm. ‘I think a lot of dairy farmers enjoy not having to think about selling the milk and concentrating only on the production, but we are able to make quite good money on 37 acres.’

Mr Healy says microdairies can help shift public perceptions of milk as a cheap, standardised product. ‘The difference in the quality is remarkable. It feels strange to call both what we produce and what’s on most supermarket shelves by the same word. Craft brewers feel the same about their beers, I’m sure.’ Emily Norton agrees: ‘We’re lucky to be able to drink what these animals produce. We should be shouting about that and reminding people that milk is a superfood and not just white water.’

 

What is a microdairy?

  • A microdairy can have 10–60 cows, although larger ones are usually unable to sell all their milk themselves and keep a regular contract with a processor. A herd of about 50 cows would provide enough milk for more than 500 households.
  • Most microdairies are not certified as organic, although many advertise themselves as having a free-range herd kept mainly outside. The milk is usually sold at a premium on supermarket milk, but is often price-competitive against that sold in local shops or through the few remaining doorstep deliveries.
  • Although comparisons have been made with microbreweries, the challenge of producing milk is much greater. Microbreweries are unlikely to grow their own crops, but a dairy farmer has a herd of cows to look after. There’s also a processing unit to manage plus, crucially, a distribution and marketing operation. And there’s far less time to get milk to customers before it becomes worthless.
  • Several farmers have successfully applied to grant-making organisations, including The Prince’s Countryside Fund, to help with start-up costs. Others have had success with crowdfunding, offering local residents the chance to invest in ‘cow bonds’, which allow farmers to buy new stock, paying the investors back their original sum plus interest, as well as supplying them with milk.