With a herd of Meuse Rhine Issel cows, Martyn and Lorraine Glover are reaping the rewards of organic conversion on their Devon farm and the benefits of taking milk processing into their own hands. Ben Briggs reports.
The Glovers’ story is one of perseverance and adaptation in the face of a notoriously difficult dairy market.
Now overseeing a thriving organic dairy processing business, which uses milk from their 91 Meuse Rhine Issel cows on the National Trust’s Killerton Estate, Devon, it has been a success story several decades in the making.
Across a period of almost 20 years, Martyn and Lorraine Glover’s journey from county council tenant farmers to micro-processing dairy owners is one which encapsulated the peaks and troughs of the wider dairy market during a period of huge change.
Both from farming backgrounds and with a passion to make it in the industry, they have worked tirelessly to develop Ashclyst Farm Dairy and the thriving organic milk processing business, which now forms the foundations of the business.
Originally based in the Holsworthy area of Devon, they headed for their current farm at Westwood Broadclyst in the late 1990s.
Martyn says: “We moved here in 1998 from a Devon County Council farm. We were milking 200 Holstein cows when we came here, working ridiculous hours and were almost finished before we had even started.”
Struggling with the milk price in the late 1990s, the Glovers say the industry faced a bleak future back then, even worse than the current malaise and this made them reassess their priorities and motivations.
Martyn adds: “We were supplying Milk Marque, which was playing with us on price, so we decided in our second year to sell up and get out.”
A new approach was needed, which came in the form of organic conversion.
Using the Organic Entry Level Scheme to tide them over for the two-year farm conversion period and restocking with a new herd of cows, the couple ploughed up the farm and replaced existing grassland with organic leys and pastures.
But almost as soon as they had got started in organic, bad timing hit once more as the end of milk quotas was announced, leaving them facing an uncertain future.
Martyn says: “This led us to sell the cows again. I went into buying heifers and getting them in-calf and Lorraine went out and worked for the South West Regional Development Agency.”
The Glovers’ focus, however, soon returned to milking and, in particular, what they could do to drive a return into liquid milk production and ensure they had a future on-farm.
Lorraine says: “Producing a premium product and getting a premium price was the plan. As the South West Regional Development Agency was coming to an end, I could see what was happening and I knew there would still be grants available to set up micro-dairies. So I kept my eyes open and managed to secure grant funding for the business we run now.”
By drawing down Regional Development Agency money, it allowed them to invest in the stainless steel processing equipment they needed and kickstart a new direction for the business.
The couple now run a 10,000-litre/week, un-homogenised processing business which sells milk, cream and yoghurt to shops and other outlets across the Devon region.
And by having a herd of Meuse Rhine Issel cows, the couple has focused on points of difference they believe set their products apart from the competition.
Lorraine says: “We decided we needed something different and found these Meuse Rhine Issel cattle, which are hardy animals and produce delicious milk.
“We kept seeing lots of adverts in Farmers Guardian for glass bottling machines, but ended up finding one for plastics within our area and this is what we needed.”
A ‘back to basics’ approach is how they coin their business philosophy and they have hardly looked back since starting up the dairy in September 2012.
With 33 Meuse Rhine Issels bought-in as bulling heifers, the couple thought that would be that; a small herd producing a small amount of organic milk for local shops and restaurants.
But as demand for products grew, so did the size of the delivery business and size of the herd, with the couple now milking 91 cows.
Slightly surprised by the success of the organic products, word of mouth and consumer demand led their organic dairy to grow and grow.
With a focus on taste, the couple do not homogenise their milk in a bid to keep cream – and taste – levels high.
Martin says: “I asked myself ‘what ever happened to the ring of cream at the top of a bottle of milk?’ This led us to not homogenise our milk, because we retain the cream content and this has been a key selling point.
“Beforehand, we never had any contact with consumers and never knew what they thought of our products. Now though, we can see how much they like what we do which is very satisfying.
“People even stop us in the street or, when they are using the little fridge in our farmyard, they tell us how much they love it.
“There was no satisfaction for us in putting milk in a tanker and watching it leave the farmgate and not know where it was going.”
With 11 staff now working on the farm and dairy, including Anthony Prowse who helped them set up the bottling plant and oversees that part of the process, it has been quite a rise for the Glovers who have three vans out on the road delivering Ashclyst dairy products.
Lorraine adds: “We have never had a salesperson and I have just tried to drive sales forward myself, as well as through people coming to us.
“We started selling to village shops and coffee shops because they love the froth the milk gives their coffees. In fact, they can tell if the cows’ diet has changed or if they are being brought inside for housing because the milk’s ability to froth drops off.
“Over time, word spread and the number of people buying our milk got larger and we have displaced conventional milk in a lot of shops.”
With a massive 7,000-property new town called Cranbrook going up just miles from their farm, there could well be more demand for them to tap into in the local area.
It is obvious Martyn and Lorraine are enjoying the organic business, both in terms of consumer connection and animal husbandry.
Martyn says: “Bringing back in clover leys has been fantastic and cows give such good milk from it.
“We want to be able to let cows roam fields. They go out in the middle of March and they were out until December 6 last year.
“This is the best way for us because they have good calves, are good mothers and are low maintenance. The only thing they cannot do is milk themselves.
“They are milking twice-a-day and well off grass and clover; we make sure we silage it for winter as well.
“Consumers like the thought of organic cows and this feeds into marketing for the business.”
The Glovers originally thought about Montbeliardes or Brown Swiss for their hardiness, but when a neighbour was selling some surplus Meuse Rhine Issels, the couple jumped at the chance.
Currently giving about 6,500 litres of milk, at 4.6 per cent butterfat and 3.6 per cent protein, it provides the quality they are looking for when it comes to milk and yoghurt they then sell on.
Facing challenges when it comes to sourcing organic Meuse Rhine Issels, Martyn has established a good working relationship with Rother Valley Organics, Sussex, for his calves.
Putting Meuse Rhine Issels to an Aberdeen-Angus bull, calves then go to Rother Valley for use in its meat box business longer term.
But what about the future of the business?
Originally coming to Ashclyst on a 15-year Farm Business Tenancy (FBT), the couple are now three years in to a subsequent 10-year FBT with the National Trust.
With three grown up children – Mark, Catherine and Simon - Martyn and Lorraine said none of them were currently showing much interest in taking on the farm once they reach the end of the current FBT.
Martyn says: “We have never been ones to push the children into anything they do not want to do. It is for them to find out what they want to do. It would be selfish to make them take it on if they did not want to. It is sad when parents make their children do that.
“We have made mistakes along the way, but we have always learnt from them. They have to do the same.”
Always realistic about where they stand and with no plans to give up just yet, Martyn and Lorraine are keen to keep reaping the rewards organic dairying has provided them with.