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Farming Matters: Phil Christopher - 'Your customers’ needs are more important than your ego'

Talk of broken supply chains is plentiful on agri-social media and in the farming press, but solutions are much harder to find.

Retired agri-marketer, former cowman and Milk Marketing Board farm adviser. Follow on Twitter @philatredrock
Retired agri-marketer, former cowman and Milk Marketing Board farm adviser. Follow on Twitter @philatredrock

On a small scale, Dora’s Dairy at Purton near Swindon can offer some insights . On BBC Radio 4 Farming Today in early May, co-founder of this farm-to-fridge fresh milk enterprise Jon Cook revealed his secret.

 

"We just need to add value," he said.

 

He and partner Sarah keep 50 cows on their 35 hectare (86 acre) farm. In addition to conventional farm assets, they have invested in processing and marketing to sell as much of their milk as possible direct to householders.

 

Their first sale was in May 2017 and today, about 1,000 regular customers come to the farm and pay £1.30/litre.

 

This state of affairs, along with Jon and Sarah’s control over their ultra-short supply chain, might be enviable to many dairy farmers.

 

But it did not come about by good luck and here’s a valuable insight for all of us, they took risks and invested considerable time, money and emotion. Their payoff is supply chain control as well as that £1.30/litre selling price.

 

Each day begins with a bulk tank of raw milk worth somewhere in the range 22-28ppl. By the time customers are pouring it onto cornflakes, Jon and Sarah have earned about £1/litre in additional value.

 

Note the choice of word, ’earned’. It is not their right or entitlement. They earn it through risk and investment, hard work and vision.

 

From this modest little grassland farm, this is a modern day parable for the troubled worlds of mainstream milk, beef cattle and finished lamb. The critical question, as I see it, is: ’what is your business model?’


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Marketing

 

For Jon and Sarah, it involves integration of production, marketing and sale of a branded product to happy customers who keep coming back for more. Their product is fresh milk from Dora the Dairy Cow, dispensed on the farm into glass bottles that customers buy and re-use.

 

In contrast, of course, a mainstream dairy unit produces multi-thousand litres a day of white liquid. Most beef and lamb producers supply buyers with groups of live animals, often not all the same size or spec’, nor necessarily subject to pre-agreed purchase contracts that define numbers, specifications or calendar-timings.

 

Clearly, these commodities are not ready for kitchen fridges. Others in the supply chain provide their own unique combinations of risk and investment, marketing and negotiating talent, in-store merchandising and after sales support.

 

A challenge they share with Jon and Sarah is matching supply to customers’ needs from week-to-week. Just how well integrated, or not, is mass market ex-farm production with processing capacity and the seasonality of customer demand?

 

Meanwhile, what can you do about all this? Well, I believe the following can help:

  • Focus on things you can control yourself. In the short term, let others worry about national remedies. Not only charity but sanity too begins at home.
  • Refine or redefine your own business model, based on things you are good at and what you enjoy. If it is mainstream production, accept you are producing a commodity raw material to which others add and earn their own value. If farm-to-fridge, start with the end in mind by identifying what your customers really want, then work backwards from there.
  • In either case, remember your customers’ needs are more important than your ego and what your ancestors did.
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