Fed up with being a price taker, northern farming entrepreneur Peter Crawford decided to take control into his own hands and launched a free-range milk brand. Bruce Jobson reports.
A new premium milk brand, Free Range 180, has been launched as part of a move to help dairy farmers receive a better price for their milk. The initiative has been set up by Peter Crawford, who contract farms a dairy enterprise at Peepy Farm, Stocksfield, Northumberland, and will enable farmers to receive an expected premium of 3-4ppl above their current price.
The co-operative concept is based upon member farmers grazing their cows outside at grass for a period of six months or 180 days. The supplying dairy farms involved have to comply with a series of stringent requirements, including environmental, ethical and welfare aspects as part of the scheme, says Mr Crawford.
“The supplying dairy herds produce top quality milk and these cows are not confined indoors for a 365- day period. The Free Range 180 cows are able to roam outside and have a happy and contented life and graze pastures throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.
We aim to differentiate our product on a free-range basis, as well as incorporating other con- sumer conscious aspects.
Ultimately, we aim to be ‘price-makers – not price- takers’ in an extremely volatile market. “Consumers are very conscious as to how farm animals are kept and where and how milk is produced.
They want to know animals lead a healthy and comfortable life and are able to graze freely in a natural environment.
Our aims are to outside at grass for a period of six months or 180 days. The supplying dairy farms involved have to comply with a series of stringent requirements, including environmental, ethical and welfare aspects as part of the scheme, says Mr Crawford.
“The supplying dairy herds produce top quality milk and these cows are not confined indoors for a 365- day period.
The Free Range 180 cows are able to roam outside and have a happy and contented life and graze pastures throughout the spring, summer and au- tumn months. We aim to differentiate our product on a free-range basis, as well as incorporating other con- sumer conscious aspects.
Ultimately, we aim to be ‘price-makers – not price- takers’ in an extremely volatile market.
“Consumers are very conscious as to how farm animals are kept and where and how milk is produced. They want to know animals lead a healthy and comfortable life and are able to graze freely in a natural environment. Our aims are to ‘connect’ with consumers and establish a premium milk brand members of the public ‘trust’ on numerous levels.”
Mr Crawford also runs the family contracting business and his own feed advisory company Northern Nutrition, and herd well-being and maintaining a healthy balanced diet is a fundamental aspect of the Free Range 180 brand.
Having a correctly balanced diet impacts on quality and he be- lieves consumers will pay an increased price based upon the ‘taste-factor’ in ad- dition to the environmental and ethical elements.
Another animal health aspect of the Free Range 180 brand relates to the ‘five freedoms’ and participating dairy producers are bound by the strict code. Mr Crawford says this ensures ani- mals are free from hunger and thirst, free from discomfort, free from pain and injury, free to behave normally and free from fear and distress.
There will also be quality assurance through the Red Tractor logo.
“We have carried out extensive market research over the past four months and consumers have stated a preference for a good tasting product, and that relates to the quality of milk produced,” says Mr Crawford.
“We’re not in the market to produce a ‘white- water’ product. In recent years milk has been devalued both as a brand and a product, and the price farmers are receiving has also been devalued and continually driven down.
“Free Range 180 is a brand which ‘adds value’ at the farmgate and all the way through the milk chain to the customer. Over the past six months consumers have stated a willingness to pay farmers an increased price for British milk. We consider our product and brand as ‘unique’ within the marketplace,” he says.
Mr Crawford currently supplies more than three mil- lion litres per annum from Peepy Farm to locally based Lanchester Dairies.
The processor has backed the initiative and will be sup- plying its milk retailers with the premium Free Range 180 brand alongside its other product lines, accord- ing to general manager Gary Halliday.
He says: “Lanchester Dairies has 40 dedicated farmer suppliers in total and we will be offering our cus- tomers a choice.
We already supply to large sections of the catering trade as well as retail, and Free Range 180 is targeted at a specific market, albeit there will be an over- lap.
We are paying our supplier farmers above the current market price and our aim is to hopefully continue to lead on prices, rather than follow.
“Some of our customers are backing the initiative on numerous issues ranging from animal welfare, through environment to the ethical aspect.
They are seeking to maintain the British dairy industry and ensure we have complete traceability throughout the system as well as transparency.
It’s in everyone’s interest to have a healthy and vibrant dairy industry that helps maintain local services and employment, and helps keep local farm shops and small businesses as well as the dedicated net- work of agricultural suppli- ers throughout the rural economy.
“Lanchester Dairies is northern-based and sup- plies customers as far afield as Manchester and Leeds, throughout the entire North East, and up to Glasgow. We’re a family firm operating a diversified farming business, with traditional family values and employing local people.
We aim to continue to grow our busi- ness and, in turn, this will help our farmer suppliers.
Free Range 180 is effectively ‘ring-fenced’ through the Lanchester network of dedicated farmer suppliers as well as our extensive re- tail network,” he adds.
The dairy herd at Peepy Farm consists of 350 Holstein cows averaging 9500kg at 4.5% fat and 3.45% protein, and is 85% self-sufficient in homegrown feed.
The high quality milk is a reflection of numerous factors associated with atten- tion to detail, overall herd management as well as diet and animal welfare.
The plan is that Free Range 180 will be offered across all three sections of whole milk, semi-skimmed and skimmed varieties. Each sector has its own distinctive colour-coded brand for identification pur- poses to reflect the increas- ing consumer choices available.
Mr Crawford hired marketing professionals to create the brand con- cept, the overall design and the brand logo.
He says: “I did not want to go down the traditional lines associated with marketing milk products and gave the professionals a clean sheet to create a brand name, brand colouring and logo. No-one else to my knowledge has ever marketed milk as a ‘number’ and the logo reflects the brand ethos.”
Mr Crawford says he has a ready made supply of dairy farmers eager to be part of the scheme. Free Range 180 was unveiled in September in a series of closed meetings with Lan- chester suppliers, milk retailers and other interested parties.
The feedback questionnaire received a 95%- 100% positive response across a range of concepts, brand identity and marketing related questions. Graeme Bradley, who farms at Quebec, County Durham, is one supplier eager to provide milk for the Free Range 180 initiative.
He says: “We milk 150 Holstein cows and the herd grazes outdoors for six months of the year. Like others, we cut and conserve our summer grass to feed over the inclement winter months when cows are housed.
“If farmers are able to re- ceive a premium milk price for a premium milk product, then this can equate to an additional £30,000- £40,000 per annum for every one million litres sold.
“I already supply Lan- chester Dairies and have confidence in knowing the aims of Free Range 180 will connect with everyone involved from the farmer to the consumer.
"It’s a ‘win-win’ situa- tion,” he claims.