With uncertainty on the horizon for the Partington family, they are building a thriving ice cream business near Bolton, Lancashire. Emily Ashworth finds out more.
There is certainly a collective approach at Deardens Farm, with the Partington family pulling together to push their dairy business forwards even though there may be a rocky road ahead.
The family has been there since 1955, after Patricia and John Partington took over and reared a herd of Jersey and Ayrshire cows. They also built up a herd of Pedigree Herefords. Their son, Michael, was born on the farm in 1962, and he helped to run the business, setting up a milk round with his mum while the family also ran a successful farm shop alongside.
Michael says: “Before supermarkets opened on a Sunday, we’d have them queueing out of the gate.”
As time ticked on, the family was forced to sell its Hereford herd for beef after losing too much money on them, and Michael went on to convince his father to buy a pasteuriser. A bulk tank was also bought, as milk was sold direct from the farm, but in 2001, John passed away and Michael stepped up to help his mother. In 2005, however, Patricia decided to sell the farm’s 230 cows at Beeston market and Michael made the decision to buy back 28 prized Ayrshire cows to start on his own. And the family legacy has continued.
Michael’s wife Anne Marie is a district nurse and their eldest daughter Nicola is training to be a midwife, but the rest of their children are heavily involved in the business and, Thomas, 12, has his sights firmly set on farming too.
In 2016 Michael’s daughter, Fiona, decided to start Milk Maids – homemade ice cream made with milk from the farm. And given their roadside location, on the A6 Manchester Road, Over Hulton, Bolton, unlike many farms off the beaten track they are perfectly placed to attract passing custom.
Fiona says: “I started off with a tricycle, scooping ice cream and attended the local fete.
“It got local people interested in the product and we sold out. The day after people were saying, ‘we want more of what we had yesterday’, but we couldn’t make enough.”
From then on, Fiona rolled the cart out to the front of the shop in the hope customers would stop and that any milk customers would also buy an ice cream. But to really develop what was looking like a potentially great financial opportunity, she had to grow it further.
She says: “I thought, ‘we’ve got an opportunity here and I don’t want to do it half-heartedly’.
“I’m never going to have this again or going to be able to come back to it in 10 years’ time.
“I had no commitments.”
In 2018, the ice cream took off, but there was only a small freezer in the farm shop.
“The first thing people saw were the fruit and veg and we weren’t selling enough of that to make it profitable,” says Fiona.
“I thought that as soon as people walk in, they needed to see the ice cream.”
Having drummed up some wholesale business for the ice cream, supplying six restaurants, Fiona managed to buy a large freezer outright which, she says, changed the business overnight. With business booming, Fiona convinced sister Rebecca to quit her job and help her run the ice cream business full-time.
They now run Milk Maids and the brand’s social media, which is a real customer driver, and their tricycle now attends about 35 weddings a year. Younger sister Laura works alongside Michael, taking care of the farming side of things renting 32 hectares (79 acres) at home and an additional 28ha (70 acres) about a mile away.
They milk 72 predominately Ayrshire cows. The milk goes for making ice cream and is sold through theirs and other shops, both pasteurised and raw, with the remainder going to Arla.
Michael says: “It’s renowned good drinking milk.” The herd is outside for as long as possible and milked in a herringbone parlour, which Michael and his father built together.
Calving is all year round and they are keen to not push the cows. Laura, who also currently has 47 youngstock, ranging from one week to two years old, says: “That’s why they live so long. We’ve got one going now that’s on the eighth or ninth lactation.”
But as much as the family’s new business is growing day-byday, they face a new challenge as the Partingtons’ landlord wants to develop the land where the farm sits, with a view to one day hosting the international golf tournament, the Ryder Cup.
Michael says: “We can’t invest in anything as we don’t know if we will be here. They want to bulldoze the whole place.
“It’s greenbelt land and you can’t build on it unless there are exceptional circumstances. “It’s a never-ending saga but we put it to the back of our minds to be honest. “If we were supplying to a big company, we could just try and get another farm, but the business is so direct.”
They have been touched to see such strong support from the community though, with local community group Hulton Estate Area Together raising £30,000 towards the legal case. But with their family history and future hanging in the balance, it means more than just giving up the business.
Fiona says: “Because my grandma started it so long ago, we’ve got a reputation. “When we were younger, whenever we’d go on holiday the moment Mum and Dad would say ‘the farm on the A6’, people would just know it. You can’t build that back up again.”
But despite the unknown, the family is continuing to carry on as usual, passionate about Milk Maids ice cream, which still attracts crowds even in the depths of winter. The business produces about 250 litres of ice cream per week in winter, and about 650 litres in summer, creating new and interesting flavours every day.
Fiona says: “We just do one small batch of ice cream daily and then replace it, so we don’t have stock sitting in the freezer losing flavour. “We churn ice cream out every single day – it would be easier to make 60 litres, but the flavour deteriorates.
“Our point of difference is we use our own milk, our own cream, and we make it really fresh.”
And Michael says that within half an hour of making it, you can be selling out. They have certainly seen their fair share of ups and downs, but Fiona is adamant their decision to diversify was right, and that selling direct is the way forwards. And their product is well sought after, selling 500 litres of raw milk a week, as well as the pasteurised.
“Take the risk and take the opportunity if you’ve got a good product,” says Fiona.
“For some farmers in the middle of nowhere, they think they can only supply in bulk to Arla and they don’t think about the customer direct, but there’s a gap in market.
“Going forward, I think people are going to go direct – for both meat and dairy.
“Supermarkets are unreliable and they’re pushing vegan alternatives too much.
“It’s being pushed in your face. With the meat scandal people want to know where their meat comes from.
“People don’t mind paying a bit more for quality and when it’s fresh. With our milk, it’s always fresh.”