Hearing of people entering the dairy industry always raises many questions, but the Hamilton family has turned its business into a success by managing every part of it themselves.
Jack Watkins reports...
The story of the dairy industry in the 21st century has been one of many ups and downs, so to meet a family which has chosen to enter the sector during its period of decline is as about rare as hearing a cuckoo in winter.
“Yes, I think we must all be slightly mad,” says Katherine Hamilton, reflecting on the challenges faced since she and her parents, John and Yvonne Gormley, her siblings Madeleine, Jonathan and William, and her husband Will, formed a seven- strong business partnership and moved to Plurenden Manor Farm, near Ashford, 10 years ago.
Initially, their experience was the familiar one of belt-tightening to combat shrinking payments from distributors.
But through taking increased control of the production chain, right through to processing, bottling and delivery, they have shown that if grit and determination are allied to entrepreneurial flair and realistic objectives, it is still possible to make a go of dairy farming.
The Gormleys owned a beef farm in Surrey before the move to Kent. Katherine and Jonathan attended the local Young Farmers Club and it was there Katherine first met future partner Will.
“He and his father had a dairy farm and our two farms started to help each other out with grazing and silage,” she says.
“Separately, the units were quite small, but Will and my father and brothers were desperate to continue farming.
“We all decided that if we combined forces, we’d benefit from economies of scale. Then Plurenden, a purpose-built dairy farm, came up.
“We thought, if we can’t make it work here, where can it work?”
Still, some big challenges lay ahead. Holstein Friesian cows from Will’s farm forming the foundation herd might have helped minimise loss of income during the changeover, were it not for the fact Plurenden’s previous owner had simply occupied the farmhouse and left the rest of the farm unmanaged.
“The milking parlour and many of the other units had been completely gutted,” Katherine says.
“We looked at a range of parlours, but it came down to who could get one installed so we could start milking as soon as possible. We settled for a Westfalia 40:40.”
They sold bulk milk to a Surrey, Kent and Sussex Dairy Group. But after the nearest processing plant at Chadwell Heath was closed and sold off, effectively halting milk collection for south east producers, a rethink was required.
“Prices have been so unstable the entire time we have been here, it pushed me to the conclusion that trying to diversify and to add value was an obvious step,” says Katherine.
“I obtained a food processor licence from the local council and opened a small farm shop with a sign at the end of the road and an honesty box.
“I wanted to put in a vending machine, but they were expensive. So, we started with a 15-litre batch pasteuriser and a display fridge for the shop.
“Demand began to grow with local customers, so we upgraded to a 30-litre pasteuriser and still demand outstripped supply.”
The success gave her and her partners the confidence to go further forward, knowing there was a potentially larger market.
“The next step was to invest in a 500-litre Reed Mallinson pasteuriser, but we’ve since upgraded again by investing in a state-of-theart steam pasteuriser and bottling equipment after we saw an ad by a processing plant in Wales which was shutting down,” she says.
Capitalising on a growing public concern about the use of plastic, they started to advertise on local radio that they were supplying milk in glass bottles.
“I’ve always thought milk should come in glass bottles,” she says.
“The fact our whole milk is also unhomogenised seems to attract a lot people who enjoy the way the cream sits at the top.
“Since last July we’ve started doing doorstep deliveries and it has grown from there.”
The Plurenden-branded product range, which as well as whole fat, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, also includes farmhouse butter and cream, with plans to add ice cream, yoghurt and butter milk, might sound straightforward enough. But it has required a considerable amount of forward-thinking, financial investment and physical effort to get to this point.
Katherine says: “The pasteuriser arrives, and you think ‘how does that work?’
“We also bought a cream separator and there’s been a learning curve involved in that, experimenting with how to get the right level of cream. It’s all been self taught, really.”
Now the bottling unit automatically allows them to fill 100 plastic bottles a minute, but glass bottles must be filled by hand. They are getting a modification to the machine which will also enable automatic glass bottling.
The farm’s 380-cow milking herd is capable of producing more than 8,000 litres of milk and calves all-year-round, only out during drier months due to the clay soils.
And even though there are at least two other farms in the region which have started bottling and delivering their own milk, the family is confident the demand among the growing population of Ashford will continue to outstrip supply.
John says: “Our target is to get from our current 10 per cent of the milk the herd produces, to 50 per cent going out to doorsteps every day, preferably in glass bottles.
“The other sales will go wholesale to cafes and coffee shops.
“It’s going to take a while, but the good thing is that there are seven of us in the business, putting in the hours. If we weren’t backing each other up, it wouldn’t work.”
The emphasis is on teamwork with decisions made as a collective, even down to Katherine’s nine-year-old daughter Alice, who has already developed a keen knowledge of the cows.
“We are all quite open to new ideas,” says Katherine.
“We’ve embraced technology and new ideas where we need to, as well as bringing over farming practices from the old farms.”
Duties are shared, and the emphasis is all-hands-on-deck. No contractors are used, and Jonathan, William and Will run the self-supporting farm, which owns its own machinery to sow, plant and harvest the feed for what is one of the largest surviving dairy herds in Kent.
Will says: “Ideally, we harvest 8,000 tonnes of maize from 147ha per year, and the 242ha of grass produces enough silage to provide about 15t to each individual cow a year.”
“We’ll cut for silage three to four times a year.”
Nobody at Plurenden thinks it is plain sailing from now on, though.
They are realistic about the challenges which lie ahead, but have taken the situation into their own hands and feel they have a measure of control over their destiny.
“We were down to 15ppl at one stage. No farm can survive like that,” says John.
Katherine agrees, saying all they have tried to do is ‘spread the risk’. Yet there have been rewarding moments.
“Last year we won an award from Taste of Kent for our whole milk in the dairy category, and this year I entered our farmhouse butter,” she says.
“We were up against two cheeses and I didn’t think we had a chance. But then they announced we’d won overall Food Product of the Year. When we won I was speechless.
"The judges liked the traditionally churned taste of the butter, but they also liked the story that backed it up – the fact we grazed the cows, milked them, bottled the milk, separated the cream and churned the butter.
“The dairy industry is such a tough place to be, and always has been, for everybody in it.
“For our butter to be recognised by the foodie people was a real pat on the back for everyone in the sector.
“It was the acknowledgement of how much hard work has gone into that one pack of butter, and I found that heart-warming.”