From ceasing trade to starting a new outlet, the Granville family have bounced back from the brink to prove their dairy product can thrive in a competitive sector.
Barry Alston visits Carmarthenshire to find out more...
A milk price of just 9ppl convinced a South Wales farming family they had no future in dairying.
But one and a half years later and the scenario has very much reversed thanks to a vending machine dispensing raw milk by their farm gate.
Not only has a £14,000 investment given Robert and Kath Granville a more positive way forward, but it has also helped to secure the future of one of the last remaining pedigree Ayrshire herds in Wales.
When their milk price plummeted to its lowest ever level, the couple decided enough was enough and began selling off cows as and when they calved, including prize winners from some of the leading summer shows across Wales, including the Royal Welsh.
Robert, who farms 40 hectares (100 acres) at Cefn Cribwr, Bridgend, says: “The prospect of losing the Gelli Garedig herd which my father had established back in 1947 resulted in some sleepless nights.”
An independent feasibility study even pointed to the only way ahead being to quit dairying altogether.
A chance conversation with North Wales farmer and local food champion Gareth Wyn Jones at the 2016 Royal Welsh Show however, sowed the seeds for a rethink.
His direct farm to consumer campaign was something the Granvilles thought was worth further consideration.
How to go about it though was the dilemma. Besides putting milk on local doorsteps and making considerable investments which would be needed into processing and bottling equipment, what were the other options?
Kath, a trained home economist and a National Milk Records milk recorder, says: “The suggestion we should look at selling raw milk from the farm gate really took hold of me.
“When I could not sleep I spent hours on the internet researching what this might involve.”
Support from Wales-based Farming Connect development officer Catherine Smith gave them access to business planning with Russell Thomas, of Kite Consulting, via the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
“Russell could see a niche for what we had in mind and a business plan showed it could be made to work with the number of cows we had,” adds Kath.
After a series of Food Standard Agency tests, they were licensed to sell raw milk from the farm, having searched the market for a suitable a vending machine and established a retail area by the farm gate before opening for business.
Daily sales have since averaged 55 litres and demand is growing, with customers within a 30-mile radius paying £1.20 for a litre of milk or £2.20 for two litres, compared to the 16-18ppl they were receiving for their bulk milk sales via First Milk.
Taking the cost of the plastic bottles and maintaining the vending machine into account, margins are put at 70ppl.
Robert says: “To start with our move into direct selling began with a fridge and a piggy bank honesty box and the venture just seemed to take off.
“This gave us the encouragement to invest in the vending machine, eventually settling on an Italian model and housing it in a 10 by 12 foot garden shed, which adds to the environmental appeal.
“A five-month waiting list for the machine, largely due to the £1 pound coin changeover, ended last August Bank Holiday when we sold our first litre of milk from it.
“We have also kept the fridge as some of our customers prefer the traditional way of buying rather than using the machine.
“We pride ourselves on supplying fresh milk every day and as the machine’s 200-litre tank is on casters, it can easily be moved into the dairy output for a thorough wash down.”
Two sizes of plastic cartons with lids are kept on hand. Customers decide on the quantity they want, put the money in the slot and push the button. A warning system prevents the machine running dry.
Customers can also bring their own containers and purchase a credit card type key with various values of up to £50.
Kath says: “Some customers come every day knowing fresh milk is always available from dawn to dusk, with Mondays and weekends appearing to be the busiest days, while Wednesdays and Thursdays are the quietest.”
Teaming up with other direct suppliers selling locally produced beef, pork, lamb and poultry via regular appearances at Cardiff’s popular Sunday farmers’ market has also helped spread the word.
There has been the odd negative comment about the risk to health of drinking raw milk, but on the whole public response has been positive, from elderly customers and younger ones alike.
Robert says: “We have a broad customer base, with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
“Some buy the milk to make cheese, clotted cream and yoghurt while others just want it to pour on their breakfast cereals.
“One particular raw milk consumer who used to travel from South Wales to Worcestershire every week to buy supplies has now switched to us.
“Any milk left in the machine at the end of the day does not go to waste. We feed it to the calves.
“As well as making it possible to sell direct to the public the vending machine means we do not need to have a constant presence in the sales area and are free to carry on with the daily demands of farming.”
Robert’s father, Raymond, and his uncle, George, took on the tenancy of Gelli Farm from the Dunraven Estate in 1947, initially as a 24ha (60-acre) holding and then added a further 16ha (40 acres).
They started selling milk locally by using a bicycle with a tray at the front, before moving to a pony and trap and finally switching to a Morris 1000 van.
But doorstep deliveries ended when Robert took over the running of what, by then, was a family-owned holding in the early 1980s.
The initial introduction to Ayrshires came by way of cows bought in Carmarthen market and run commercially, with a bull bought from the Osmond family in Grimsby, and the use of AI.
The move to full pedigree came in 1979 with foundation cows bought from John Roberts and the Cwrt herd, Gorseinon. Some of those early lines are still in the herd today.
Cows are milked through a 4:8 abreast parlour with average yields, given the herd is now building numbers back up and a large proportion are heifers, standing at 5,200 litres.
Robert says: “When Kath came back from the Royal Welsh and said we were going to sell milk direct to the public, my reaction was ‘no way’. I had had enough when we were running the milk round.
“By then our autumn-calvers had been sold off and we were down to just 30 cows and preparing to move into rearing beef cattle and sheep or breeding dairy herd replacement heifers by way of sexed semen.
“What is for sure now is we will be staying with Ayrshires with bulls presently being used based mainly around Sandyford and Hunnington lines.”
What Robert and Kath are also certain about is the wider public becoming more educated about where and how their food is produced, coupled with support for the family farming structure.
Kath says: “People even ask us if our cows go out to grass, stressing if they were being kept in all the year round they would not be buying our milk.
“We want to keep running what is a traditional family farm and believe the potential is there to keep on expanding direct sales, even to the extent of selling eggs, an additional venture we are seriously looking at as well as cream and even cheese.”
Marketing has been a key area of focus, one where the couple’s three children – Mary Jane, Kate and Beth – have supported the venture.
“The girls have been fantastic,” says Kath. “They have taken care of all the social media side of it and they just love the farm.
It is because of them we have really fought to keep the business going.”
Robert adds: “Looking back 18 months, I was really depressed; virtually giving our milk away and selling cows which had been part of the family’s heritage.
“We are never going to make a fortune out of direct selling but it has made it possible to stay in milk and preserve our love for the Ayrshire breed.”