Your Good Lives
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.
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.tawriverdairy.co.uk
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