Embracing traditional and contemporary markets has been key to creating a thriving dairy business in the South West and beyond. Jack Watkins speaks to the siblings behind Hinxden Farm Dairy.
The phrase ‘keeping it in the family’ could have been coined for Hinxden Farm Dairy. Trading as W.G. and T.A. Manford, the sibling partnership of Graham Westacott and Sally and Richard Manford tackled a family crisis in the 1980s by building on deep local roots to develop a thriving dairy business.
But while doorstep milk deliveries from their base at Benenden, Kent, are mainly confined to a roughly 10-mile radius, a wholesale contract with Farmdrop has enabled them to reach the London market. Their line of dairy and cheese products recently earned them six prizes at the International Cheese Awards.
Sally admits they are proud of their farming history: “Our grandfather had been a farm manger on various estates in Wales before he moved to Hinxden in the 1930s. “There was only a house and barn and he milked five Shorthorns on 14 hectares and grew fodder crops. Our father carried on that way, gradually adding bits of land, but the whole herd was lost to TB in the 1950s.”
Restocking with Guernseys because they were the cheapest cows he could afford, he gradually rebuilt the milking herd, but further expansion was scuppered by his sudden death in 1981.
Sally says: “Richard was 16 at the time and about to go to Hadlow Agricultural College. I was away working on another farm and Graham was working as a quantity surveyor and only coming back intermittently because there had not been enough full-time work for him here.”
But suddenly, all three had to drastically change their plans to support their mother and aunt in running the farm. Sally adds: “The worst thing was milk quotas, which were introduced in 1984, based on what you were producing in 1981, the year we had been flattened by Dad’s death. “We could not have survived, because it meant we only had a 200,000-litre quota, but then we heard an existing small dairy nearby no longer wanted to carry on and we saw this as an opportunity to add value.”
While the family have been selling directly to the public and had experience running Guernsey cows, new challenges lay ahead once they took the new business over. “The people we bought the business from had Guernseys as well, so it was a pretty seamless transition.
It quickly became apparent, however, we would need some black and white cows, because this was around the time there was a big thing about reducing fat. “It was all about producing skimmed and semi-skimmed milk.” A restocking programme was undertaken to meet the greater volume of milk required. While the farm had 100 Guernseys when they took over the dairy, today they are down to about 70, with 160 Holstein-Friesians.
The success of the approach is evidenced by the fact the herd now generates one-and-a-half million litres of milk per year. Yet it is a financial necessity the farm is able to be almost entirely self-sufficient on forage, the siblings say.
This is not helped by land which is slow-drying Wealden clay, which can lead to restricted spring and summer grazing seasons, and means cattle can be back indoors by the end of September, sometimes even earlier in an especially wet year. Graham grew 68ha (170 acres) of maize and cut more than 202ha (500 acres) of grass silage over summer last year.
He says: “The problem has been getting more land. You cannot just say I have 100 more cows, I am going to buy more land. “We have four neighbouring farms and we are all in the same position, leap-frogging over one another. We have become very spread out and have land up to five miles from our Hinxden base.
“The other consideration is we have to do most things for ourselves. We don’t own a forager or a combine, but we hire in equipment as necessary. “It is just me and one other worker who cut our grass. We do whatever needs to be done.”
The same adaptable approach has been adopted for the dairying and delivery side. Graham says: “We started with nothing. The existing dairy we bought did not come with any property or facilities. “We just brought the equipment, such as the pasteuriser, the separator and one bulk tank, back to Hinxden, and bought other equipment, like the filling machine, ourselves.”
The dairy was built next to the old barn, which is known from the farm deeds to date back to at least 1812, and which houses the milk refrigerator. While one full-time and one part“We just brought the equipment, such as the pasteuriser, the separator and one bulk tank, back to Hinxden, and bought other equipment, like the filling machine, ourselves.”
The dairy was built next to the old barn, which is known from the farm deeds to date back to at least 1812, and which houses the milk refrigerator. While one full-time and one part time dairy worker are employed, Sally initially did most of it herself, learning about processing by understudying people they bought the dairy from.
She says: “They were our friends anyway, so it was not straight in at the deep end. “What we quickly learned was not to promise to deliver to an individual customer at a particular time, because it is going to be all down to our milkman’s delivery schedule. “A great asset was when we advertised in the late 1990s for a milkman and we got an application from a man who had been a milkman for Dairy Crest in London’s Square Mile for many years. “We have learned so much from him and he also now happens to be my partner.”
The Hinxden Farm Dairy logo is simple but effective. Sally says: “Most other dairies seem to go for things like a funny cow, but I did not want that. “Then I saw another local dairy had one of an oast house and hops. It made me realise to market milk products effectively, you did not have to have a cow on your logo. “So what we have is a nice picture of a countryside bridge, which is actually the one at the bottom of the farm leading on to some of our neighbouring villages.”
The family continues to deliver milk in glass bottles. As well as Channel Island Gold Top from the Guernseys and whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, they have gradually extended the range of other products to include yoghurts, creams and creme fraiche.
The sales end of the business has seen periods of expansion, consolidation, then progression into other areas, says Graham. “We started off with about 200 doorstep milk deliveries and next to no wholesale trade. We went up to 1,000 doorstep calls, but we have had to ease back on those to about 700-750 deliveries. “People die, and it tends to be older people who have milk delivered.
Then there are families who had babies when we first started who have now grown up and are at university or have moved away, so those families do not need as much. “Plus, a lot of people these days are lactose intolerant and they cancel. However, we have seen the number of doorstep deliveries stabilise lately.”
Their aim is to focus more on wholesale, and they are supplying up to 100 calls per week – the biggest growth being from coffee shops. Graham says: “We deliver to a lot of local private schools who like to say in their prospectus they support local businesses. “Trade with farm shops has dropped, however. Up until the recession there was a farm shop on every corner, but 50 per cent of those have disappeared. You just have to modify what you do.”
The association with Farmdrop, which buys fresh produce from farms in southern England and delivers it to households across London, came about when they approached a local butcher who stocked Hinxden Farm Dairy products. Graham says: “Farmdrop was looking for another supplier of milk and we were recommended. It has worked really well. “Farmdrop is efficient in getting orders to us for the following day. It has a good computer system, so we can look online and check what orders we have coming to make sure we have the relevant stock ready.”
Few dairy farmers will speak optimistically about the future, but Richard says: “We have got as good a chance as anyone who is doing what we do. “If you want to make it work, you can do, but you have to keep your foot pretty hard to the floor the whole time with every aspect of the business, otherwise the costs will get away from you.”