Looking for a diversification opportunity to support their growing family paved the way for the Brown family’s biggest venture yet.
Diversification continues to be a buzzword in farming and it is a concept the Brown family has grasped firmly by the horns in the past 18 months.
Having formerly supplied all their milk on the spot market, the family had been looking for a way to add value to the product they were producing.
When the milk price plummeted to 14ppl in 2015, they decided to take the plunge and put the wheels in motion to get their idea, Bidlea Dairy, off the ground.
The plan was to sell their milk direct from the farm, taking it right through from processor to customer themselves.
A planning application was put in and the building work followed and, in April this year, milk processing began at The Orchards Farm, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, now home to three generations of the Brown family.
You cannot fail to notice the impressive new wooden structure on arrival at the farm and at first glance of their inbuilt viewing platform, it is sure to attract visitors interested in provenance.
Having been taken on by the family in the 1960s, the farm now spans 180 hectares (450 acres) and supports their 330 year-round calving pedigree Holstein Friesian herd, which is well known in the area having taken prizes locally and nationally through the years.
Honours include winning the national dairy farm of the year in 1984, being awarded a lifetime production award from Holstein UK for several cows in 2012, to being named the Cheshire county winners in the Genus long life cow awards in 2014.
Showing no signs of letting up, more recent titles in the showring have included the supreme breed championship and several other rosettes at this year’s Royal Cheshire Show, with competing set to remain a family affair alongside the new venture.
Run alongside are about 180 followers and the farm also rears 80 breeding bulls each year, which are sold privately at 18 months old both locally and nationally.
On a grass-based system, the herd achieved an average annual yield per head of 9,500 litres in 2018, with 30 per cent of this coming from forage and the rest from grass, at 4.13 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.
Cows are paddock grazed and were turned out in March this year.
Family is at the heart of the processing venture though, which sees responsibilities for the day-to-day running of the farm, and more recently the dairy, split between its members.
Adam and his wife Becky take on the bulk of the responsibility for milk processing and marketing, while Adam’s brother, Ryan, and his wife, also named Becky, look after the production side and the daily running of the farm.
Their parents, Ray and Jill, and sister Melanie, are also all involved and the business employs six other full- and part-time staff.
Explaining their decision to go down the on-farm processing route, Adam says: “We wanted to be in control of our market.
“After doing research in the local area, it became apparent that no other ventures of the same nature or commercial scale were supplying milk and other dairy products directly to customers or local businesses, so we thought if we did not do it now, we never would.
“The farm’s location also lends itself well. We are in the centre of a reasonably affluent area where people are willing to spend that bit extra on a fresh and traceable product.
“People can taste the difference because the milk is fresh and has not travelled the miles of the products found in supermarkets.
“We have a good story to tell, which was undervalued before, and our target market is increasingly seeing the value in supporting local food businesses.
“The timing seemed right too. It presented the perfect opportunity for a business like Bidlea.”
About 1,000 litres every other day passes through the Bidlea Dairy and having set a goal to increase this to 9,500 litres, the plan is to increase output every three months for the time being.
Milk which is not processed on-site is collected and sold on the spot market.
Although upsizing the farm’s 20:20 parlour is on the agenda, for now milking starts at 2.30am and takes about four hours at each end of the day.
Milk is transported across the road from the parlour to the new processing unit in a hermetically sealed tube, where two raw milk tanks have been installed and can collectively hold 20,000 litres.
The equipment in the dairy was bought and installed with the help of a 15 per cent grant from the Rural Development Programme and is set-up to process up to 3,000 litres per hour, or 72 litres per minute.
The dairy is producing whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, as well as cream and butter, and they will soon be offering a pergal filler – 13-litre bags of milk in a box – to supply catering outlets too.
There are also plans for various future ranges, including flavoured milks, yoghurts, cheese and ice cream.
Bidlea products are available in local catering outlets and shops, as well as hotels and schools, but longer term, the family is hopeful that working with local milkmen could increase direct sales to customers and are looking at the possibility of an on-site farm shop.
They are aware of how integral social media has been in building this initial customer base, particularly Bidlea’s Facebook page.
In documenting the dairy’s highs and lows from a building site to the facility in place today, it has allowed potential customers and local businesses to follow the journey with the family from day one to opening day.
Adam says: “We have had a lot of interest via Facebook, which is where we have sourced a lot of our customers from so far.
“As a family-run business, we all have a vested interest in making it a success and one of our strong points is being able to talk to local businesses about our product on a delivery round, or being able to solve any problems straight away, which I think goes a long way.
“We have brought in a steady stream of customers while we have built up to opening which has worked well.”
With the dairy now up and running, the family has big plans for the future as it looks to build upon the ‘fresh and local’ reputation and image it has built.
Longer term, the family would like to use the dairy as an educational platform and allow visitors to see the cows and the processing in action.
The viewing gallery has already opened its doors to school visits and local groups, informing people on where milk comes from and the process it goes through to reach their homes.
Adam says: “We are keen to work closely with local schools and colleges to show young people where their food comes from, but also to provide opportunities to young people in agriculture.
“We have also put in accommodation so we can give the opportunity to a student or young person looking for work experience.”
But it is family which has been the driving force for change and the set-up can now provide a more stable future for them all.
He says: “The dairy was a venture Dad had been thinking about for a while, but it had not been a
viable option financially for the farm businesses in the past.
“But in selling to a plummeting market, the final straw came when the milk price slumped as low as it did in 2015 and as a family we decided to take the plunge.”