A wish to retain more control on their milk price has prompted the creation of a new revenue for a dynamic farming couple. Danusia Osiowy visits their Lancashire farm to find out more.
It is day 18 in the Naked Milk hut and its doors are open for business. The by three metre by 2.4m (10ft by 8ft) painted wooden hut is the latest addition to Gracemire Farm, where cartons of raw milk are for sale to locals and passing roadside trade.
It is rare to visit a business at such early stages, but Lancashire dairy farmers Fran and Richard Tomlinson are determined their idea will be no flash in the pan and will reside with future customers.
The hut is a simple idea borne out of what seems to be an increasingly optimistic market and the fact Fran can manage the business around their four children Harry, 10; Freddie, 9; Tilly, 6; and Bonnie, 3.
Inspired by a raw milk producer who appeared on Countryfile earlier this year, the story prompted them to carry out their own research into the market and speak to fellow farmers who had gone down the same route.
The Naked Milk brand will join the other revenue streams which operate from the Preston-based business, which includes lamb boxes, turkey rearing for Christmas and a small free-range chicken brood.
But it is the 125-head milking herd of British Friesians which is providing the goods for the latest venture and allowing the third generation Duchy of Lancaster tenants a route for growth.
So, at a time when the sector has shown the first signs of a long road to recovery, are they feeling nervous at the fragility of the market?
Richard says: “It is really about taking more control of our product. We are not unhappy with our processor but we are fed up of supermarkets undervaluing milk in their price wars.”
Fran says: “We have an extremely good product which is hugely underrated to the wider public. Raw milk is a niche product but is what we grew up with.
“It retains its texture, creaminess, flavour and nutritional value. There is a lot of nostalgia about it and we are getting customers telling us it is how their milk used to be.”
“The cartons in supermarkets have been standardised and homogenised, with a shelf life of seven days. It has been sterilised to make it last.
“Our milk is taken straight from the udder to the tank and bottled in the early hours of the morning. The milk has three inches of cream on the top and is perfect for cornflakes or coffee.”
Before taking the next leap of faith and buying a dispenser, the couple are keen to know more about their market.
But as raw milk production omits the pasteurising and homogenising processes, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) still completed rigorous testing before granting a license enabling them to sell the product directly.
That was on July 8 and four days later they began trading to the public.
“They were thorough and checked our milking routines, the parlour, the cows and carried out visual checks on the health of each one.
“Milk samples were also taken and checked and they will regularly test the milk by coming to the farm and taking a carton of it out.
“The visit can be unannounced and it does make you feel a bit nervous, but we know our product and the regulations which are in place.”
Richard took the farm on in 2008 after returning from Newcastle University where he met Fran, who previously worked for Hunterpac as an account manager before having Harry.
In the last seven years, the couple have invested significantly into the business, updating the parlour, installing new cubicles, mattresses and a collar heat tie system. There has also been the conversion of three farm buildings to facilitate lambing and turkey production.
Cows are all home-bred with various sires used through artificial insemination to ensure year-round calving. Working with their nutritionist, they operate a pasture-based system, placing an emphasis on milk from forage.
The cows are turned out in April and brought back in October. During winter months, grass, maize, wholecrop and brewers grains are fed and topped up with cake in the parlour.
Twice-a-day milking ensures cows are producing about 8,000 litres a month, supplied to Clifton Dairies for milk rounds, shops and hospitals.
“We try to produce cheap milk to keep costs as low as possible. We are trying to maximise margin through grazing.”
The couple are helped by full-time stockman Brian Mulholland, and a butcher comes in once a week to prepare meat for their box scheme.
Regular visits from their vet, Tracey Taylor, has increased fertility and pregnancy rates and raised their herd health status.
Cows are also TB tested annually and they are fortunate mastitis cases are extremely low.
The involvement of the FSA has not fazed the couple and their confidence in the quality of their milk is apparent.
“The FSA guided us through all bacterial information. Our milk is clean anyway as we already supply Clifton Dairies under strict rules. We would probably be aware of a problem with our milk before the FSA as it is also routinely tested.”
Running alongside the dairy are the sheep and meat box schemes.
Richard started the sheep enterprise to help pay his wage when he returned from university as the farm was unable to sustain it at the time.
Demand from the direct meat box scheme and farmers’ markets has pushed the numbers up to the 300-strong flock it is today.
About 30 per cent of their lamb is sold direct from the farm or through their two local farmers’ markets at Lytham and St Annes, near Blackpool; the rest goes to Dunbia or to Brockholes Auction Mart.
“The hut is our way of getting the product out there at this stage. Its location – on the left of the entrance – is set back enough to enable customers to safely enter and exit the rural road where cars pass through.”
Open between 6.30am and 10pm, seven days a week, about 40 litres are selling each day in one-litre (£1) and half-litre cartons (75p), with two-litre units to be launched soon.
Alongside the milk, which is kept refrigerated at 4degC, there are also free-range eggs from the poultry enterprise which produces about 14,000 eggs each year.
Significant effort went into the branding and, as mentioned previously, nostalgia plays a part in their labelling.
The baby pink and fresh turquoise colours interlink with a vintage font which is carried through all their branding and signage, reflecting Fran’s love of the style.
Marketing is inevitably in its early stages, but Fran is active on Facebook and Twitter and will continue to use the free advertising.
She says: “We don’t want it to be too unique as we don’t want people to be afraid of it.”
It might only be early days but the couple’s enthusiasm for their new venture is palpable. And if it is anything like their other retail enterprises selling direct to the public, Naked Milk could be here to stay.