Commentary on farmers being a resilient breed never seems far from the centre of debate in farming circles, but few have had to face a test as severe as the one met head-on in recent months by Simon and Jackie McCreery. Ewan Pate reports.
Over a decade and a half, Simon and Jackie McCreery have built up a successful, award-winning business supplying home-produced milk and processed dairy products to the booming food service sector in Scotland.
Yester Mains, nestled in scenic countryside at the foot of Lammermuir Hills, is one of only two dairy farms remaining in East Lothian, where at one time there would have been as many as 60 servicing mostly the Edinburgh market.
The 162-hectare (400-acre) farm has been producing milk since Simon’s parents, David and Lynn, moved from Co Tyrone in 1992.
Jackie, who is also from a Co Tyrone dairy farming family and knew Simon from their schooldays, moved to Scotland in 2000 and worked as solicitor with an Edinburgh firm and then as policy director with Scottish Land and Estates.
Once their children – Sam, 12, and Marianne, 11 – were born, Jackie become increasingly involved in developing the family business.
Simon, who has a degree in land management from Napier University, had already decided on the direction of travel by starting to retail the farm’s milk, albeit after processing by a third party.
He says: “I am a farmer through and through and my motivation was that I wanted the best for my product.”
He has concentrated on increasing yield and quality from the farm’s 380 Holstein Friesians, which are run on a flying herd basis with heifers selectively sourced in the UK or occasionally from Europe. Cows are grazed with access to buffer feeding all-year-round.
Average yield hovers around 10,500 litres per year, although it has been trimmed back a little during the pandemic by cutting back on supplementary feeding and moving from three times-a-day milking to two.
Currently the cows start moving through the 20 by 20 parlour at 2am and 2pm, with each operation taking about five hours. Milk is then pasteurised before being piped to the dairy.
Although the processing side of the business, Yester Farm Dairies, exists to add value to the milk, it is run as a separate business entity to the farm, a farming partnership involving Simon, Jackie, David, Lynn and Simon’s brother Spencer.
Simon and Jackie are directors of the dairy, which is a limited company operating under the ethos of ‘from farm to fridge’, and employs 16 staff.
The synergy between the two enterprises is well planned though, and as effective in practice as it is in theory, with the dairy existing to provide a consistent market for the farm’s milk without the constant fluctuations which bedevil most of the sector.
Milk processing is not for the faint hearted, however, evident most recently when the business saw an astonishing 80 per cent of its orders disappear within a few days of Covid-19 lockdown measures coming into force.
For many businesses further up the chain, it was a case of battening down the hatches, but it is impossible to furlough 380 dairy cows.
Simon says: “We had actually been very busy and I had even been buying-in some extra milk. But suddenly we had far too much and I was having to sell briefly on the open market for 12ppl.”
With one of the main lines being mozzarella, which fortunately is one of the few cheeses which can be frozen, at least none of the processed product went to waste.
Equally fortuitously, the McCreerys had also recently launched a new Yester Farm Dairies website, which although designed mainly with foodservice customers in mind, had a facility for retail sales ready to activate.
Jackie says: “We had it up and running in two days. Instead of doing click and collect we put a chilled van on the road. The people of East Lothian were very supportive and with a couple of weeks we realised we would be okay.
“We tied in with other people who were doing home deliveries and, through social media, we contacted everyone we could think of. About 40 per cent of the new business came from Facebook, and the rest from our own website.”
Although all the restaurant trade had disappeared, takeaway outlets continued to operate, meaning there was soon a good demand from pizza outlets for mozzarella.
Production staff were back off furlough within three weeks. Indeed, extra staff had to be recruited to help with deliveries, which by now had extended into Edinburgh and beyond. Now the decision has to be made as to whether to put the larger delivery lorry back on the road or stick with smaller, more nimble vehicles.
Jackie says: “It has been quite an experience and not one we expected, but we will be stronger coming out of it.”
Covid-19 aside, and enterprise has needed a good flow of investment over the years.
The first move, undertaken in 2007, after custom had been established for Yester Dairy-branded milk, was to establish a pasteurising and bottling plant on-farm.
Thoughts then turned to processing artisan products and building upon what by now was a well-recognised brand.
Jackie says: “We could see Scotland already had a good number of hard cheese manufacturers, but there was no-one making soft cheeses such as mozzarella and cottage cheese and these became our signature products.”
Cultured creams and a range of other products followed in response to demand from foodservice customers.
Alongside catering packs, new retail packaging was developed and Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s stores in Scotland added to the customer list.
The marketing effort involved is not to be underestimated, but it had to be matched by expansion in the manufacturing side.
In 2015, work started in converting an existing grain store into a large modern cheese room, complete with pasteurising and packaging equipment.
Two large vats are used for mozzeralla production, with it taking 10,000 litres of milk to make one tonne of product. A 1MW-capacity steam biomass plant, believed to be the first in Scotland specifically designed for the purpose, generates steam for pasteurising units. It is fuelled by waste wood and oat husks.
But the one intangible input required is the accumulation of knowledge, and here the McCreerys are quite clear: good advice should be taken whenever it is available.
Jackie says: “We have learned to listen to everything, but at the end of the day we have to trust our own instincts.”
And it is a philosophy which seems to have served them well.
They have also made particular use of the Scottish Enterprise Growth Scheme, and a well-designed website has helped, especially in recent months, to diversify into direct to customer sales and their ‘farm to fridge’ strapline has proved to be sending out a clear message.
It will be interesting to see how the business develops once normal times resume.
Jackie says: “We have had to learn the hard way in recent months, but we definitely think we have discovered opportunities.”
More about Yester Farm operation and products can be found at yesterfarmdairies.co.uk.