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A busi­ness mak­ing de­li­cious ice cream

It’s the end of a long hot af­ter­noon and we’re in the af­fa­ble com­pany of Sam Bulling­ham and his part­ner Katie Bray, walk­ing the fields of their small­hold­ing, meet­ing the herd of beau­ti­ful Jersey cows and chat­ting about eth­i­cal an­i­mal hus­bandry. As we re­turn to the farm build­ings, Katie dives into the dairy and emerges a short time later car­ry­ing wafer cones stacked with scoops of freshly made ice cream. New flavours, she ex­plains. Lemon meringue, cho­co­late brownie, Turk­ish de­light and mint cho­co­late – what did we think? A few mo­ments later we’re mak­ing noises of ap­pre­ci­a­tion that cause their hens to be­come alarmed. Se­ri­ously de­li­cious.

Sam and Katie are the founders and pro­pri­etors of Taw River Dairy – mak­ers of lux­ury ice creams (and more be­sides) and they are im­mensely proud of what they have cre­ated in their cor­ner of exquisitely pretty mid-Devon. They started the busi­ness from scratch and it’s taken a huge amount of hard work and bound­less en­thu­si­asm, but if our chicken-dis­turb­ing ice cream rap­ture is any­thing to go by, a very bright fu­ture lies ahead.

Although both have farm­ing back­grounds, the move into ice cream mak­ing was not an ob­vi­ous ca­reer path for ei­ther of them. Sam’s early mem­o­ries in­volve vis­it­ing his grand­par­ents’ hill farm on Dart­moor, help­ing to bot­tle-feed or­phan lambs. An of­ten-told story in the Bulling­ham fam­ily is of the in­fant Sam wan­der­ing through a flock of sheep and point­ing out the best an­i­mals with the con­fi­dence of an old hill shep­herd.

By the age of 7, Sam had de­vel­oped a ‘sheep ad­dic­tion prob­lem’ as he puts it. Start­ing to shear at 12, tak­ing proper lessons at 15. Af­ter A lev­els, he took a fast-track agri­cul­tural diploma be­fore trav­el­ling the world, shear­ing pro­fes­sion­ally in Aus­tralia and New

Zealand. In 2014, Sam won the World Young Shep­herd of The Year award at a com­pe­ti­tion in France, beat­ing com­peti­tors from 16 na­tions. “They haven’t held the com­pe­ti­tion since,” he laughs. “So, tech­ni­cally, I’m still the reign­ing cham­pion.”

Katie grew up on a Cornish dairy farm – her fam­ily keep a large herd of Hol­stein Friesians but the twice daily milk­ing wasn’t, she says, a life­style that par­tic­u­larly ap­pealed to her. She went to univer­sity, qual­i­fied as an agron­o­mist and worked with a na­tional firm for five years. “It was a great job,” she says, “but it was time to move on.” She now loves the free­dom of work­ing for her­self (“It’s great do­ing what we want, when we want to”) and her sci­en­tific back­ground has proved very use­ful in her new life.

A place of their own

Af­ter a few years of in­ter­na­tional shear­ing, the glam­our of a semi-no­madic life­style had be­gun to wane for Sam. He and Katie had al­ways wanted a place of their own but land was hard to find un­til Sam’s grand­mother, (by now sadly wid­owed) gen­er­ously made avail­able 15 acres of pas­ture at her new home, in mid-Devon. Con­sid­er­ing the op­tions, they thought of ways in which it would be pos­si­ble to ‘add value’ to pro­duce from the land. De­spite his ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence as a ‘sheep ad­dict’, Sam’s thoughts be­gan to turn to dairy cat­tle (“Rear­ing calves was some­thing I knew I could do”) – but it was still dif­fi­cult to see a com­mer­cial op­tion us­ing rel­a­tively mod­est acreage. If there was a ‘light­bulb mo­ment’ he says, it oc­curred at a trade fair in Birm­ing­ham where they stum­bled upon a stall demon­strat­ing small scale ice cream man­u­fac­tur­ing equip­ment. A plan be­gan to emerge as they talked through the pos­si­bil­i­ties and, soon enough, Taw River Dairy was born.

They de­cided early on that they’d keep Jer­seys – renowned for their gen­tle na­ture and glo­ri­ously rich but­ter­fat con­tent of their milk (ideal for lux­ury ice cream pro­duc­tion). Start­ing with a small num­ber of calves that they brought on them­selves, they’ve slowly in­creased the herd over the last few years. They’re now home to 15 Jersey and Jersey cross cows and have rented ex­tra land to en­sure that the herd re­mains on pas­ture as much as pos­si­ble. When they are housed in win­ter the cows eat ei­ther silage or hay, and ce­real sup­ple­ments are strictly avoided. “It’s the most nat­u­ral diet for the an­i­mals and good for the en­vi­ron­ment too,” says Sam. This grass-only regime pro­duces high qual­ity milk with a rich flavour and high nu­tri­tional qual­ity. They also in­tend to fo­cus on pro­duc­tion from cows in their herd that pro­duce milk con­tain­ing the A2 pro­tein that some ev­i­dence sug­gests is more ‘gut friendly’ to those suf­fer­ing lac­tose in­tol­er­ance.

Eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples

Con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment is one of a set eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples shared by Sam and Katie and which un­der­pin the busi­ness. They be­lieve, with a pas­sion, in the high­est stan­dards of an­i­mal wel­fare (not just as a stand-alone prin­ci­ple but, as they put it, “happy cows pro­duce happy milk”) so calves are left with their moth­ers to suckle and milk­ing takes place just once a day. This ap­proach has an ob­vi­ous im­pact upon milk yields com­pared to big com­mer­cial out­fits, but it’s a price worth pay­ing, they be­lieve, to have “the hap­pi­est cows in the coun­try”, nat­u­rally rais­ing their calves on rich pas­ture.

As far as hu­man hap­pi­ness is con­cerned, cre­at­ing the ice creams them­selves proved to be a lot of fun – with plenty of trial and a few er­rors along the way. They try to use flavours that are pro­duced to their own eth­i­cal standard – the honey they use is pro­duced by their own bees – and they use com­postable ice cream spoons and re­us­able glass bot­tles.

This small scale, eth­i­cal take on a lux­ury prod­uct has al­ready be­gun to re­ceive lots of in­ter­est from lo­cal restau­rants and pubs and they were re­cently asked to pro­duce a special ‘cider sor­bet’ ap­pe­tiser for a gourmet night or­gan­ised by a com­mer­cial cider pro­ducer. They also made a special be­spoke ice cream for a friend’s wed­ding. “We milked the cows in the morn­ing, made the ice cream straight away and took it to the wed­ding in the af­ter­noon,” says Katie. “The guests couldn’t be­lieve that we’d made it our­selves. They loved it…” The sum­mer has also seen them sell­ing from their lit­tle re­frig­er­ated trike at fes­ti­vals over the South West. Katie was a lit­tle ner­vous, at first – her life as an agron­o­mist hadn’t re­ally pre­pared her – but adapted quickly. “When peo­ple try it, they re­alise it’s a good prod­uct and then we can tell them it’s eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able. It’s a good ad­vert for farm­ing.”

Show­ing the pub­lic how it’s pos­si­ble to work with, rather than against, the en­vi­ron­ment is one of their am­bi­tions for the fu­ture. Their longer-term wish is to have a farm shop and small camp­site where fam­i­lies can come to see the cows, watch the milk­ing and help make the ice cream. More im­me­di­ately, they’ll hap­pily process rel­a­tively small amounts of milk (as lit­tle as 40 litres) from lo­cal small­hold­ers keen to put some home-grown treats on the ta­ble.

In amongst all this nu­tri­tional sci­ence and in­no­va­tive prac­tice, how­ever, they still see a di­rect link with an older form of farm­ing. “We pro­duce our milk in ways sim­i­lar to those used by my grand­fa­ther, over 60 years ago,” Sam says. “It’s in our her­itage.” MORE: www.tawriver­

They are im­mensely proud of what they have cre­ated

Jer­seys are renowned for their gen­tle na­ture

‘Rear­ing calves is some­thing I knew I could do....’

The cat­tle have a grass-only regime

Sam drives his sheep in a mid Devon lane

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