Without income from farm offices, the Candy family would have struggled to survive during low milk price, which has spurred them on to develop their own Somerset Gelato and rural country markets. Aly Balsom finds out more.
Earlier this year, during Open Farm Sunday, people were queuing out the door to get their hands on a scoop or two of Paul and Rachel Candy’s Somerset Gelato.
Salted caramel proved to be one of the biggest draws for the 1,500 visitors on the day, along with the more unusual coffee and caramelised walnut, which tastes exactly like a cold version of the popular cake.
When asked what they believe is their USP in attracting the masses, the couple believes it to be the depth of taste and commitment to using fresh flavours.
Rachel, who is now a self-proclaimed ‘ice cream snob’, says: “A lot of people use pastes, but it tastes a bit synthetic.
“The taste from fresh is just completely different, so we make it all ourselves and the end result is heaven."
Take for example the strawberry gelato. Fresh strawberries are bought from local growers where possible, with the Candys favouring strawberries from nearby Cheddar Gorge.
On a gelato-making day, the strawberries are hulled and sprinkled with sugar, blended and not strained. They then go straight into the base mix to produce the fresh strawberry gelato.
Somerset Gelato is just one part of the Candy’s Palette and Pasture business, which is a collection of rural-inspired businesses, including art produced by Rachel and regular country craft markets. The farm also has eight offices in several converted stone barns.
When it comes to the gelato, Paul and Rachel have very much bought in to the concept of producing a quality, artisan product.
The high-end Carpigiani equipment in their new gelato factory – in a converted container – highlights their commitment to producing a quality experience.
They also choose to age the gelato base mix to bring an extra level of creaminess to the product.
This involves rapidly cooling the milk and cream to 4degC after pasteurising and holding it at 4degC for a further 15-24 hours. The end product, says Rachel, is extra creamy and ‘a bit like a posh Mini Milk’.
The pair’s knowledge and understanding of the product is particularly impressive considering how long they have been making it.
The idea of producing gelato only came about at Christmas, with the Candys then choosing to fast-track the process to start producing this April. It is a decision which has proved worthwhile, especially considering this summer’s heatwave. In the first weekend of July alone, they sold about 200 litres of gelato.
The pair have chosen to sell direct to customers, either straight from the farm through their pop-up shop, via a freezer on wheels under a gazebo, or through a cater-pod trailer which they use for events and weddings.
This ensures they keep every bite of the cherry, compared to selling wholesale – although this may be another route to market moving forwards.
Making a food product on-farm made sense, considering its location close to Bruton and Frome – both of which are popular among Londoners and foodies.
Ice cream was an option but, because the pair wanted to make maximum use of what they could produce on-farm, opted for gelato instead as it uses whole milk.
This compares to ice cream where the milk would have needed to be separated to produce cream, leaving skimmed milk as a waste product.
With the 200-head herd of cows, which averages 4.2 per cent fat and 3.3 per cent protein to meet the high constituent requirements of their processor, Barbers Farmhouse Cheesemakers, their milk was also ideally suited to gelato production.
It also fitted perfectly with the Candy’s ethos of making the most of what they produce on-farm. The pair’s ultimate aim is to maximise milk fat content which will minimise the amount of cream needed to be added to the gelato.
At the same time, milk protein needs to be kept at a minimum of 3.2 per cent, not only necessary for their milk contract and gelato making but also to boost cow health.
Paul believes somatic cell counts and fertility immediately take a hit as soon as milk protein drops below the 3.2 mark and as such, he is focused on feeding cows a high energy ration that will promote proteins. This is balanced carefully with digestible fibre to ensure milk fats are maintained.
He says: “I feed a lot of homegrown forage in grass, maize and wholecrop silage. They have to be made with as high a ME as possible. And I feed locally-produced caustic wheat, which improves the starch and energy density of the ration, which pushes up the milk protein."
Keen to keep the herd pure-bred, Paul has also chosen to select Holstein sires that will help improve milk fat and protein, as well as somatic cell counts and fertility.
With health and welfare in mind, Paul has reduced yields to 9,000 litres a cow a year from a peak of 9,800 litres.
He believes this reduces pressure on the cow and ultimately makes for a healthier, more profitable herd. Cow comfort has also been improved by installing cow mattresses and tweaking buildings.
Rachel adds: “A healthy herd is massively important to us. We don’t have the desire to get intensive and increase herd size and that’s why we went to gelato.”
Not having cattle housed all-year-round is also important to the couple, who try and graze cows as much as is possible. Rachel, in particular, believes this fits with what the customer wants.
Paul is also keen to promote the farm and dairy farming as a whole, which is why the business hosts several farm events, welcomes schoolchildren and hosts an Open Farm Sunday.
Tractor rides round the farm during open farm events act as a great opportunity to communicate to the public.
Paul says: “The rule is – for anyone that comes on the tractor – there’s no taboo questions. I’ve nothing to hide.
“If we want people to support farming, you’ve got to let people on to the farm and educate them.”
Up until March, Rachel was a practicing public health nurse – something which she gave up to focus on Palette and Pasture.
This has given her a unique insight into changing trends among consumers and particularly a marked shift away from eating dairy products.
“Because of diets and trends, a lot of children don’t have calcium and vitamin D in their diet,” she says. “The consequence of that is when children reach the menopause, there will be problems with osteoporosis. It will cost the NHS millions.”
Rachel also recognises the increasing shift towards vegetarianism and veganism and, in response to this, now makes sorbets. But she remains committed to only using dairy in the gelato.
“I’ve no issue with vegans or vegetarians but I have no desire to use coconut milk. I don’t have coconut trees or rice fields. To use that would go against what we’re trying to do, which is low food miles and using what we produce on-farm,” she explains.
The Candys believe having a selection of businesses is essential in helping to safeguard their future.
The value of an additional income stream was highlighted during the depressed milk price in 2016 when Paul was receiving less than 17ppl under his old Arla contract.
He says: “Without the income from the offices, I would have had to increase debt massively. We were losing money every month, as were 75 per cent of dairy farmers in the country. The offices kept a regular supply of money coming in.”
This has been the main reason for the diversification into gelato and rural businesses.
Paul says: “These businesses are all to complement the farm.
“The farm pays for them, but the businesses need to be there when things with farming aren’t as good to mitigate the volatility.”