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On the farm with Geoff Bowles at Ivy House Dairy

2nd June 2016
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Geoff Bowles’ family farm is beating the dairy crisis. When milk prices began to drop Geoff and his wife swiftly made the bold decision to process all of their own milk. This livelihood-saving move has meant they’ve been able to create their own delicious niche in organic dairy and make a real impact within their own local economy. Not bad considering they started with 50 Jersey cows eh? Our roving reporter in the field Nigel caught up with Geoff at their Somerset farm on yet another busy day of milking, processing and bottling to find out why he started it all and what the future holds for dairy farming.

When did you decide to start selling direct and why?

In 1999 we literally reached a crossroads when a bypass came and cut the farm into four. We knew then we needed to get niche, get big or get out. We couldn’t get big and we didn’t want to get out so the only option was to get niche, so we switched to Jersey cows, went organic and began processing our own milk. By pure fortune there seemed to be a developing interest in London in foods direct from the farm. People were getting a bit bored with Tesco. We got invited to Borough Market when it was just getting going (there were 2 other food businesses and it was a nice introduction to life up there) and we met some good chefs and made some friends and it snowballed from there really. Within a couple of years we realised there was no point in going back – the price of milk was going down and there was an increasing interest in what we were doing. We started to put a face on our product and it was quite fulfilling and rewarding. Within 5 years the first farm shops started to open up round here and we were first in the queue because no one else was doing it.

What the best thing about running Ivy House Dairy?

We’re giving local people jobs and contributing to the local economy. I get a big buzz out of that. Of course another thing is family and the fact we’ve established a sustainable business that my family can take on. It’s not necessarily about money but it’s about keeping going. We’re in a place where I’m able to step back and let my son take over the farm. There’s no point in letting my son take over when I’m 85 – he’ll already be 50 and won’t be too keen on the idea. So now he’s 28 he’s able to take over the farm and my daughters are interested in the marketing side.

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Geoff’s son Darren amongst the Jersey herd 

Are there opportunities for more dairy farmers to switch to direct sales?

There’s a lot more scope for people like ourselves to setup. It’s such a perfect product to turn into saleable items – you’ve got yoghurts and cheeses, crème fraiche and cream cheese. There’s so many products you can make from milk. Farmers have got the one thing that keeps the human race alive and we don’t seem to be able to create a vacuum for it. It’s like as if we were selling fresh air – we can’t survive without food and yet how did we get in a position where people say. ‘I’m only going to give you this much for it’. It’s the peaks and troughs that kill-off farmers. When there’s a peak it mean farmers can invest but then along comes a trough and they can’t afford the investment.

Why does Farmdrop work for you?

It works for us well as it fits in with our logistics and because of this Farmdrop customers can have their milk so very fresh. Our staff rock up to the farm at 6 o’clock in the morning and there’s already an order here on the computer ready (the cows haven’t even started milking then) and we can process exactly to order with maximum shelf life. For us the logistics work very well and therefore the food safety is helped because there’s total traceability. For example, on the Thursday, when the customer places their order it was still grass – that’s something that people identify with, the absolute freshness of it. Supermarkets can’t trace their milk back like this (more than fly to the moon!). Farmdrop gets our food right to the doorstep. The logistics of it all are very impressive and in our eyes it ticks all the boxes with delivery in electric vans too.

Do you have any names for your cows and how do Jersey cows differ from other breeds?

Yes, some of our cows have names but that’s something my son Darren deals with now as he now rears all the young stock. When I milked our Friesians the names depended on how well they behaved in the parlour – if they misbehaved and if there was any pooping, their names changed. Jerseys are totally different cows and are very well natured. They’re an intelligent cow whereas Friesians are a bit of a hypochondriac cow – they’re a bit of scatty, hybrid breed – their genetics are just to produce milk and die after a few years as they are tired. These Jerseys go on forever and are very well natured and willing. I used to say Jerseys were kept by old ladies and retired sergeant majors – it’s that sort of canny, you go out in the field and try and round them up and they’ll follow you round the field. You go out and call them and a 100 cows will come up to you. So they are a very nice animal. The Queen’s got Jerseys, so that must count for something.

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“Is it my turn yet?”

What’s the average lifespan of a Jersey cow here and how does that differ from the national average?

The average lifespan of a Jersey cow is 7 or 8 years – we’ve got a lot of cows that have done 10 lactations. With Friesians the national average is 1 year and ¾ lactations which means that many don’t even have 2 calves. That’s been driven by profitability – lower milk prices and people sourcing cheap milk – that dairy farmers have had to exploit. That’s the name of the game and because of that everyone is going to get milk that’s compromised. This is why organics has kept going really. It’s about the only really recognised 100% sustainable marketing marker. You get what you pay for and I wouldn’t farm any other way now.

What do your cows eat and how does that compare to your bog standard dairy?

Our cows eat 95% forage – silage in the winter (this is grass that has been stored and we give this when we bring them inside) and out grazing grass the rest of the year, and with this we give them around 5% organic concentrates. Most dairy herds would be 50-60% foraged – the rest would be all concentrates brought in soya from Brazil and rape seed from France – all bought in, composted, traded foods.  

Can you tell us a bit more about the processing and how that evolved?

We’ve put a few variations to the theme. We make butter because we didn’t know what to do with our cream. My dear old mother got us on to the butter. We make clotted cream butter and we make butter fingers, in different shapes and sizes. Our 50g butter is something no one else does because we don’t have any specific packaging machinery. Everything is done by hand. We can make any thickness of cream you need and can vary the butter fat. We’ve got the testing facilities so we’ve got the ability to do this with our manual methods.

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Ivy House butter getting hand shaped and patterned with a butter paddle

How many staff work on the farm and in the creamery and how would that compare to a typical 120 acre farm?

We have 6 people processing most days, another 2 out on the road, 2 batching up and 2 out on the farm. If this was just a normal dairy farm it would maybe support a farmer and his wife if they were lucky.

Can you tell us a bit about the difference between homogenised milk and un-homogenised Jersey milk?

When you homogenise milk you force it through small holes so that the fat molecules break down, preventing the cream from rising to the top so you’re able to ship it big distances and mix lots of different milk together. Our milk is unhomogenised, milk the way it used to be. You’ll find the natural creaminess settles at the top – just give it a little shake to mix it together. I’ve heard it said that unhomogenised milk is better for you because the big fat globules don’t get absorbed straight into your system.

Favourite part of your job?

Watching people living and working as a team, the animals and mustn’t forget the wife – she’s very much involved and is the head ‘bean counter.’ And seeing the whole family thing pan out. The farm and the creamery are inextricably linked and it’s all a lovely jubbly job – it’s all happy bunnies.

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