Flavour of the Month
Taw River Dairy, by Debbie Kingsley
Husband and wife team Katie and Sam Bullingham are going places. The 20-something owners of Taw River Dairy are entrepreneurial through and through, but they have no interest in chasing financial or output targets.
“My business driver is long-term quality of life for me, Katie and our kids,” says Sam.
Katie is due to give birth to their first child in a few weeks. “We’re not trying to overly mechanise things or robotise anything; I like manual labour and employing people to work with us. I see it as a local community investment and we don’t want to lose the personal touch.”
Now is a pertinent moment for this reflection. The couple launched their dairy — which makes ice creams, sorbets and butter and bottles milk — in March 2017 and they are about to take on a 10-year tenancy of 310 nearby acres while also keeping their current ground.
“At the moment we run 24 milking cows — a mix of Jerseys, Red Polls and dairy crosses — on a 60-acre smallholding,” Sam explains. Some of this land belongs to Sam’s grandmother, while the rest is rented from a neighbour near Sampford Courtenay in Devon.
But this couple isn’t all about cows and milking. They like to process what their animals produce and the hub of this operation is a small shed on their holding which they have transformed into a dairy processing room. From the outside you wouldn’t know that the dairy is anything other than a storage shed. Chickens and ducks meander around the yard and past the shed calmly greeting visitors.
No bigger than your average family kitchen, inside the processing room is rammed full of gleaming stainless steel kit for making and storing ice cream, as well as bottling their milk, which is sold in traditional glass bottles. It smells clean and fresh and, dressed in whites, Katie and two part-time staff work quietly, choreographing their moves to avoid getting in each other’s way.
An old fashioned ice cream trike and trailer parked outside on a grassy verge is a tell-tale sign of what is going on inside. It may be unused today, but it appears at numerous local agricultural shows, food fairs and farmers’ markets, at which the Bullinghams sell their wares direct to the public. Invariably the queues to buy are long. The trike also frequently finds itself loaded up and transported to special events, such as birthday parties and weddings,
where the guests have a penchant for ice creams and sorbets.
These sweet treats are as fabulous, delicious and wonderfully flavoured as they sound. The list of those flavours (some currently bought in) is long: honeycomb, lemon meringue, pecan and maple syrup, strawberry and chocolate brownie, plus — for grown ups — strawberry prosecco, vodka lemon and lime or gin and elderflower. Each product is beautifully but simply presented in paper tubs with a golden logo designed from a clear brief by Sam that connects the gold top Jersey milk with the ice cream. It shouts luxury and purity.
The focus is on the fact that the calves are kept with their dams. Inside the creams, pinks, yellows and browns are a feast for the eyes first and then for the taste buds second. There are no unwanted additives in here and because of the high natural protein in the milk and cream there is little that needs adding apart from those special flavourings.
“We’ve planted edible hedgerows across the smallholding to make our own ice cream and sorbet syrups harvested from rosehips, sea buckthorn, wild pear, cherry, plum and elderflower,” says Sam.
While Katie is busy processing the milk, Sam looks after the land and the cows and he milks his herd several fields away in an old fashioned yard with a simple mobile milking machine. He is constantly interrupted by the ringing of his phone and after exchanging a few pleasantries, he takes down orders for milk, ice cream, sorbet and butter.
Apart from selling to the consumer via the trike or direct from the dairy, an increasing number of nearby shops, cafes and pubs with a focus on local organic food are selling the Bullingham’s produce.
Working with local cheesemaker Curworthy Cheese, Taw River Dairy is also producing soft cheese made from its 100% A2 milk (see fact file, page 42), and Sam is keen to produce a Taw River Dairy cheddar type of hard cheese that will store well. Yogurt is also on the agenda of what happens next. With Taw River only processing its own milk — and with the ever-increasing demand for its products — it is not surprising that Sam and Katie need to expand their herd and their land. The six-fold planned expansion is being funded through the business’s swift success.
Farming must be in Sam and Katie’s genes. Sam’s grandparents used to farm on Dartmoor.
“They kept the smallholding where the dairy is now based,” he says. “Even though my father was an engineer and my mother a teacher, I always wanted to be a farmer and I grafted as a shearer to raise the startup money for the business.”
Katie’s family run a traditional dairy farm in Cornwall.
“My background is as an agronomist, so the system we now run here has been a significant change for me,” she says. “The ground is in organic conversion with Organic Farmers and Growers (OF& G), and the dairy herd is a cow/calf dairy, which means that the calves stay with their mothers until they are at least four months old. The cows are milked once [not the usual twice] a day and all the bull calves are reared on to sell as breeding bulls or, possibly in the future, for sale as high welfare rose veal.” Sam has planted the land as herbal leys. “Instead of a sea of grass, the cows are feeding on a rich mixture of ‘cut and come again’ plants with a significant amount of chicory, plus sainfoin, lucerne, clovers, plantain, trefoil and more,” he says.
On our way to see the herd, we walk across a field with greenery thick above our ankles. Sam is proud of the growth considering that the cows had only been taken out of this pasture 10 days previously. The plants the Bullinghams grow extend the outdoor grazing window and, as Sam sows the seeds with a broadcaster on the back of a quad bike, no hefty kit is required.
The couple has also broken the mould in other ways.
“I’m conscious that the people buying our gold top milk, butter, ice creams and sorbets are increasingly concerned about aspects of food and farming,” says Sam.
Their Jersey cows are naturally horned, but they are using semen from a polled New Zealand bull and Sam believes that Taw River Dairy is one of the first businesses in the UK to do this. This means that they won’t have to disbud their calves, thus improving welfare.
“Wherever possible we are pursuing the sustainable option, from re-usable glass bottles to compostable ice cream spoons. We have our own bee hives, with our bees important in the pollination of the herbal and grass leys and vital to making our special Devon Clotted Cream and Honey Ice Cream.”
The plan is to focus on building up the herd of Jersey cows, doubling their numbers to begin with and testing them to ensure that the herd only carries A2 genes. They need to calve in spring and autumn to ensure a year-round supply of milk, with each cow averaging a 12ltr daily yield.
“Our ethos is to make the best possible products, so for the ice cream we invested in the best ice cream machine we could find, putting our money where it really counts and where the customers appreciate the difference.”
Looking into his crystal ball, Sam can foresee caring for a dairy herd of 200 and a team of 10 staff. Otherwise, though, he admits that he will ditch the goals and targets “because they make you miserable if you don’t achieve them”.
The Bullinghams currently have 24 milking cows, but the herd is set to expand exponentially
Taw River Dairy packaging reflects the natural nature of the products inside
Sam’s mobile milking machine