A Lancashire dairy family is adding value to its herd’s milk thanks to an exclusive partnership with a London barista. Tom Levitt reports.
As they rushed to meet a deadline for launching a new milk brand, the sudden arrival of Storm Desmond last year could not have come at a worse time for the Towers family.
They had just bought a new herd of Jersey cows, all in-calf, and had one month before they were due to start sending twice-weekly deliveries to London.
Based at Brades Farm, on the edge of a floodplain in the Lune Valley, north Lancashire, the farm is used to deluges. The rainfall in early December broke records and even today, more than two months on, there are still bales of forage strewn across river banks and stone walls broken into bits.
The family – John, April and sons Joe and Edward Towers - admitted they had a comparatively lucky escape as they coped with calves needing to be relocated.
Since then, they have quickly refocused their attention on the launch of the milk brand which they hoped would help secure the long-term future of dairying at the farm – whatever the weather.
After many years of selling milk direct under their Lune Valley Dairy brand, Joe came across a young London-based coffee entrepreneur who was searching for a dairy farm to help him launch a milk brand for the booming coffee market.
For Shaun Young, who ran Noble Espresso, the homogeneity of milk seemed bizarre when baristas and coffee-drinkers like him were happy to talk for hours about the provenance, flavour and quality of the coffee beans.
Shaun says: “Everything in the coffee industry is moving forward from machines, with green coffee sourcing and roasting, yet milk is overlooked.”
Rebecca Young and Shaun Young
Brades Farm - part of the Lune Valley Dairy brand
Shaun’s idea was to work with a dairy farm to produce a milk brand which could be talked about just as much as the coffee. “We’re trying to pioneer something different and raise the quality and perception of milk by getting cafes to stand behind it and be more passionate about the milk they are selling,” he explains.
With his business partner Rebecca, who coincidentally also has the surname Young, Shaun had expected it would be easy to find a dairy farm to partner. But after six months and more than 30 different conversations with dairy farmers they were losing hope, until they met Joe.
“We underestimated the fear many dairy farmers had and the risk they felt they would be taking by working with us. Many of the farms we visited looked like they were on their last legs, but we still couldn’t convince them [coffee shops] are a market for milk,” says Shaun.
"If you are going to differentiate yourself, you need to ensure the milk is traceable to you at the farm level"
- Joe Towers
Not only did Joe have a family ready and willing to set up a new herd on their farm, but he also had a background in the coffee industry, having taken a work placement with a company in Tanzania.
Joe, who only returned to the farm last year after finishing a course in agri-food marketing at Harper Adams, says: “I always wanted to do something with coffee so this was an opportunity to pursue a project which I was perhaps a bit more passionate about than others.”
As well being an entrepreneur in residence at Lancaster University Management School, he has now taken on the marketing of the farm’s dairy produce, leaving John and Edward to manage the two dairy herds.
Under a partnership agreed late last year, Joe and his family bought in 70 Jersey cows from Denmark to begin the new herd after advice from coffee industry experts suggested a breed known for delivering a comparatively higher fat and protein content in their milk. For Joe, the Jersey herd also made sense as an investment for the farm.
“I felt Jersey milk was more marketable than just black and whites’ milk because it’s more niche if we wanted to market for butter and cheese, or milk for baristas.”
Together with the existing Holstein-Friesian herd, the farm has 360 milking cows, kept across three sheds with sand bedding for hygiene reasons, and 440 hectares (1,100 acres). They sometimes use sexed semen, but all youngstock, including bulls, are kept and raised on-farm.
They also have partnerships with neighbouring farms to rear cow calves. The long-term aim for the farm is to create a self-sufficient herd.
“The people who buy premium dairy products are going to be the ones asking questions, so you have got to make sure you do everything right. We want those people to trade up,” says Joe.
All milk from the farm, including from the existing herd, is sent to Dales Dairies based in Grassington, Yorkshire, which agrees to segregate milk from the Jersey herd – a key obstacle for others trying to launch similar products.
“If you are going to differentiate yourself, you need to ensure the milk is traceable to you at the farm level,” he says.
Cows are fed on a mixture of grass, wheat and an additional blended feed, with the family growing grass and wheat across 20 hectares (50 acres) on-farm. Aside from the cows, they also winter 300-400 sheep on contract.
In return for their investment in the Jerseys, the farm gets a guaranteed market and a 3ppl price premium for milk on top of the market price at Dales Dairies from Shaun, who brands and sells it as The Estate Dairy.
Although there is a keenness on both sides to partner up more closely, at present they have agreed a one-year commitment.
Shaun, who has made his own investment in delivery vehicles, cold storage and bottle branding, says: “We are not out to shaft each other.
“The investment they have made to get this brand off the ground has made us even more hungry to make it a success. People’s livelihoods are on the line.”
Shaun and the Towers family have also agreed an upper and lower cap to protect them against volatility in milk price. John says: “We know we need each other. When the market is at the top, Shaun is most at risk and at the bottom it is us. This is why we have the caps in place.”
Two months after launching, Shaun is selling almost 4,000 two-litre bottles of milk every week to more than 30 cafes in London and he has also just started a delivery to outlets in Leeds. The immediate success of the milk brand has surprised everyone.
Up until the moment the Jerseys arrived at the farm, Joe says he still felt it seemed like an idea which could fall through, but he is optimistic about its future now. He says: “Now we’ve seen the response the milk has had, it is amazing to think we were the first milk for coffee dairy brand.”
Setting up the milk herd and providing a clear, transparent supply chain for coffee shops is just the start for both Shaun and the Towers family. The next step is experimenting with the milk’s taste and flavour.
While not expecting to engender quite the same level of passion as coffee, the aim is to at least break myth the milk is a homogeneous product.
Despite the fact there are already a number of branded milks out there which are favoured by specialist coffee shops, such as Yeo Valley Organic, Joe and Shaun say the Estate Dairy is the first one to be created for coffee shops.
And although not many are making much use of it yet, there is a lot of science about the impact of milk on coffee taste.
A high-fat milk, for example, gives you a creamy, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth feel, while protein helps produce those tiny bubbles which, if steamed properly, give you a milk with a luxurious mousse-like texture. At present they are using milk from both the Jersey and Holstein-Fresian herd for the Estate Dairy milk in order to avoid an overly-rich milk.
With the help of Morten Munchow, a food science lecturer and owner of the Copenhagen-based academy Coffee Mind, Shaun has arranged for a postgraduate researcher to spend time looking into the relationship between the diet of the cows on Brades Farm and the flavour and aroma of the milk they produce.
Shaun says: “We’re pretty excited and curious. No dairy has ever had a need to look into something like this, so it’s completely new to the UK.”
A few weeks after the farm visit, Shaun and Joe secured a supply contract with a cheese producer for Jersey milk and he expects to move up to more than 10,000 litres a week, with three processing and delivery slots.
Joe says: “It’s still only a small proportion of the milk we produce but it has got huge potential to grow and is a segment which we can add value to.”