Staying close to home was the key to one family’s determination to save their dairy farm. Emily Scaife finds out more about the business decisions at Bluebell Dairy.
Dairy farmers to their core, Rosemary Brown and her family decided to stay true to their roots when they were forced to reconsider their business.
Faced with that old, well-known dilemma of low prices and falling margins, they looked into several different options to try and safeguard the future of Brunswood Farm, where they have milked cows for more than 50 years.
Rosemary says: “When you look at our farm, the only real route for us is dairying. It’s grassland and we’re on clay-based soil.
“Derby is a mile as the crow flies, so we didn’t go into sheep because there are a lot of dogs around. And we looked at beef, but there wasn’t a big enough margin.
“So we took stock and realised we needed to look at our location and the population in the area as a starting point,” she adds.
Just 10 minutes drive from the centre of Derby and only 25 minutes from Nottingham, Rosemary realised their proximity to urban centres could prove a positive.
“There are about 750,000 people living within a 10-mile radius, so there is a massive population on our doorstep,” she explains. “Even if we only attracted 1 per cent of that population, we felt it would be enough to get us going and make a start.”
So Rosemary and husband Geoff decided to try their hand at ice cream production. What began as an experiment in the kitchen has now become a popular business, allowing the farm to expand while also educating the next generation about where their food comes from.
The family settled on ice cream production because the margin was much bigger than other potential projects and the addition of attractions could potentially bring more customers to the site.
“Dairying has been quite hard, so we didn’t have a massive amount of capital savings,” Rosemary says.
However they need not have worried, as they were able to secure £188,000 worth of grant funding to make their dream a reality.
“I initially secured a £10,000 grant from the New Technology Initiative to buy ice cream-making equipment,” Rosemary explains. “And then we were awarded £178,000 from the Rural Development Programme for England to help convert farm buildings.
“I honestly don’t think we could have done it without the grants,” she adds.
Rosemary threw herself into learning all she could about ice cream production, attending a college course, visiting other businesses around the country and becoming involved with the Peak District Dairy Wagon, a mobile training unit launched by Prince Charles to help dairy farmers learn new skills in order to add value to their milk.
Rosemary knew they had perfected the recipes when they took their ice cream to Italy to compete in an artisan ice cream competition. They won, beating 13 Italian ice cream producers.
“That’s our claim to fame – that we beat the Italians at ice cream making.” Rosemary says.
And back at home appreciation for their ice cream was also growing apace after the site officially opened on December 13, 2008.
“Bluebell Dairy began with just two wholesale customers and now we supply ice cream to about 150 businesses and most of the National Trust properties in Derbyshire,” she adds.
She admits it has not been completely smooth sailing – very wet weather in 2012 meant they had to quickly look at staffing numbers and take measures to ensure they would survive.
“As the business has grown we have had to have a very strong head for figures and if something isn’t working then we change it,” Rosemary says. “Money is tight, so we have to be reactive and manage carefully.”
And this strategy is beginning to pay off. Visitor numbers were up 50 per cent last year, meaning they have been able to think about changes they would like to make to the farm.
They have also received industry recognition for their hard work, coming runners-up in the diversification (large) category at the British Farming Awards 2016 and receiving a nomination for Farmer of the Year at the 2009 BBC Food and Farming Awards.
“The diversification has meant we can keep milking cows,” Rosemary says. “I am not sure we would still be milking otherwise.”
The farm is currently an Arla Tesco supplier, with less milk than you would expect going through the ice cream business.
“Production is growing year-on-year but we probably still only use milk from five or six of our 95 Holstein Freisians,” Rosemary says.
They have recently installed a milk vending machine, which created a lot of excitement in the run-up to its grand unveiling on January 25.
“We have had a lot of telephone enquiries asking when our milk will be on sale, so fingers crossed it will be a success.
“It took us a long time to set it up as we wanted to put our pasteurised milk through it,” she adds.
“As a result we had to give a lot more thought to our processes – i.e. the wash-up water has to be 95 degrees and we have had to install stainless steel pipework and a pump to pipe the milk from the ice cream laboratory. The Environmental Health officer has visited and given their full approval, so everything is complete.
“We will also be using our milk in our tea rooms – this alone will use a minimum of 100 litres per week.”
The farm also hopes to invest in a robotic milking system in the near future.
“Plans are currently being drawn up by our architect to submit to the planning authority,” Rosemary explains.
“The plan involves a shed for the cows, as well as a public viewing area.”
Rosemary and Geoff are passionate about educating consumers while they are on-farm. As well as managing the dairy herd and growing rye-grass, permanent pasture, maize, wheat, triticale, sunflowers for their Sunflower Patch and pumpkins for Halloween, the site is also home to a rural classroom.
“We were lucky to secure funding from Natural England for our rural classroom and it has made a huge difference to the number of school visits we can offer and the work which we can do – particularly in the winter months,” Rosemary says.
“We hosted 40 school visits to the farm last year, with about 1,500 children visiting. Bookings are flooding in for this year already – we hope to host at least 60 schools during 2017.”
A permanent farm walk has been created on the 150-hectare (375-acre) site, which they hope will educate consumers about farming and the wildlife the family works so hard to support through Higher Level Stewardship.
“We run six-metre buffer strips around some of our arable fields and grow pollen and nectar mixes as well, as strips of wild bird mixes to create habitats,” Rosemary says.
“We work closely with Natural England, for example we leave half a hectare of unploughed ground for lapwings.”
Boards placed on the farm walk contain information to educate those taking part as they complete the 45-minute route.
“We are passionate about education,” Rosemary says. “If people understand food and farming then the future of British food is stronger than it would be otherwise.
“The farm and ice cream business fit together nicely because most people are genuinely interested in farming.
There are times when it doesn’t fit together nicely, for example during the busy summer holiday if we’ve got to silage that day, but it’s still good that we’re doing it.”
The next 12 months look set to be busier than ever. As well as launching their milk vending machine and applying for planning permission for the robotic dairy parlour, Rosemary reveals there are lots of exciting things planned for Bluebell Dairy in 2017.
“We are currently refreshing our logo and the design of our packaging and we’re working on a brand new website,” she says.
“We’re expanding our animal patch, adding more paddocks, animals and activities. And finally January is always the time of year when the ice cream team locks themselves in the laboratory and comes up with some fabulous new flavours. We are all waiting with excited anticipation for the tasting sessions.”