Herd size may have upped together with development of a thriving direct sales brand, but an early established ethos at Riverford Organic Dairy remains at its heart. Rachel Lovell reports.
It is just shy of 70 years since the first 36 dairy cows arrived at Riverford Farm, Devon. In 1951, the recently demobbed John Watson walked the one-mile journey from the farm to the village of Staverton to meet a steam train loaded with 36 Ayrshire cows.
John had studied agriculture at Oxford, but was relatively inexperienced when he and his wife, Gillian, took on the tenancy of the run-down south Devon farm.
“Our father wasn’t an experienced farmer at all,” says Oliver Watson, who now runs what has grown to a 250-head dairy herd with his sister Louise. “But it was shortly after the war and he felt producing food was a way that he could do something useful.”
Oliver and Louise slowly took over the dairy herd once they returned to the farm, Oliver after studying agricultural sciences at Edinburgh and Louise after focusing on equestrian career.
What was originally a 50 hectare (120-acre) Church of England tenancy is now 450ha (1,100-acre) farmed in collaboration with the Riverford vegetable box scheme, which is run by Oliver and Louise’s brother, Guy Singh-Watson, and sister, Rachel Watson, who works on the marketing side of things.
Oliver says: “In the very early years, Riverford was selected by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) as a demonstration farm to show how productivity could be improved with artificial fertilisers, but instead our father witnessed the health of our herd and the land declining.
“By the late 1980s we went organic as we felt strongly that by putting the soil first, we would make the farm viable in the long term.”
Today, the focus remains on the soil as the starting point for herd health.
Leys are sown with complex deep rooting herbal mixes and high protein plants including lucerne and chicory in addition to red and white clover. The cows also get to eat any ‘grade out’ vegetables from the box scheme that does not hit the mark for customer quality, broccoli being a particular favourite of theirs.
The herd has evolved too, initially with those first Ayrshires crossed with Dairy Shorthorns, to see if the herd’s productivity could be further improved, and since via further cross-breeding which has seen the Watsons introduce breeds including Montbeliarde, Normande, Swiss Browns and Swedish Reds.
In a typical year, cows spend four months indoors in a purpose- built barn where they are fed on
90 per cent homegrown grass, hay and silage. A tailored ration of organic concentrate is fed to each cow at milking, in the farm’s 24/48 herringbone parlour.
Up until recently the herd was autumn calved, but the farm is currently moving to spring and autumn calving system, with a view to providing more consistent milk volumes for the dairy.
All replacements are bred on the farm using sexed semen, while a beef bull is used on 25 per cent of the herd and beef-bred calves reared as store cattle.
All of this contributes to milk production with a strong reputation, which has played its part in building a thriving customer base for their own Riverford Organic Dairy branded products, beginning with bottled milk in 1998.
The business has since grown significantly and products are now retailed nationally in high end London-based retailers, including Whole Foods Market and Fortnum and Mason, as well as through the Riverford vegetable box scheme and via local retailers in the form of small shops, cafes and delis.
When it comes to processing the milk, it is only gently pasteurised and is left unhomogenised so whole milk comes with a thick slick of cream. The business has built on its popularity by developing a range of potted dairy products with an emphasis on traditional methods of production.
Clotted cream, mascarpone, crème fraîche, yoghurt, cottage cheese and curd cheese are all made in the on-site dairy production facility, with a team of 15 led by managing director Fiona Gibson, who has been with the business for six years.
“We applied those same values of a natural approach to farming to creating our dairy products,” says Fiona.
“We knew that using traditional methods and essentially not messing with what was already an excellent product was what our customers came to us for.”
The dairy’s clotted cream, for example, is left to set overnight and then scalded to create a natural crust, the way it would have been in a farmhouse kitchen 100 years ago. Butter is traditionally churned and hand packed into rolled foils, while mascarpone is made using double cream and pure organic lemon juice.
“Nothing is rushed in production,” Fiona says. Using traditional farmhouse methods, slow cooking and allowing time to let flavours develop ensures the products are unspoilt and taste amazing.”
And it seems that Riverford is getting things right, with multiple wins at the national Great Taste Awards, including the coveted three-star label for its crème fraîche.
Product innovation does not stop though, having moved into gut health with new kefirs. This is a milk drink which originated in Russian and eastern Europe, where milk is fermented with a specific culture of yeasts and bacteria to produce a tart, tangy flavoured liquid that is considered beneficial to gut health by some due to the presence of probiotics.
“We recognised a demand in the marketplace for foods that promote healthy digestion and lifestyle,” says Fiona.
“We are planning to produce a high quality, small batch organic kefir flavoured with organic fruit purée in mango and plain varieties with no sugar or stabiliser added, fitting both customer demand and our brand values.”
The business has also provided contract production services in their purpose built dairy, including creating Selfridge’s own label butters in salted, unsalted and truffle varieties, and helping Russian milk drink brand Biotiful Dairy launch.
The team recognise the importance of product innovation in the dairy sector, having been as dismayed as every other dairy farmer at how static milk prices have remained.
“We are always interested in supporting start-ups in the dairy sector, and encourage contact from anyone with ideas,” Fiona says.
With such an emphasis on the domestic consumer, the dairy has a keen focus on sustainability issues, with plastic packaging remaining high on the agenda. The milk is packaged in 100 per cent recyclable plastic at present, as switching to glass presents multiple investment and supply chain challenges. Meanwhile, they are trialling bulk milk dispensers in local shops and are considering a similar model for yoghurt.
So, with decades of experience running a diverse farming and production enterprise, what would Oliver advise dairy farmers who may be considering moving away from bulk milk?
“It is only worth doing if your milk has something different about it,” Oliver says. "You need that premium angle to get the right price. You will never do better than the big guys when they have the economies of scale – it is not a pot of gold. There is a lot of capital cost involved with relatively small scale production, so make sure you have your eyes open from the start.”
And when it comes to the future of Riverford Organic Dairy, cheese looks set to be next in the pipeline. “I would really like us to look at creating our own traditionally ripened cheeses,” says Oliver. "It’s easier to make on a smaller scale than some of these other products, as the investment is lower.”