Making ice cream is easy – it’s the add-ons that are the hardest part of processing your own milk, according to Derbyshire producer Malcolm Sutton.

“Diversification is easy to say, but it’s not a cheap or easy option – markets aren’t just there. You have to be interested in it and live the dream,” says Mr Sutton who runs the 120-cow Shottle Herd, with his wife Kate and sons Richard and William, at Postern Lodge Farm on the Chatsworth Estate, Belper.

Ice cream is the family’s second farm diversification: They also import top-quality embryos from Canada. Having considered increasing cow numbers to 500, but not fancying the hours in the parlour every day, and realising bed and breakfast had reached saturation point in the area, the Suttons wanted something different that would make more of their herd’s end product.

“Ice cream appealed more than cheese and we had an opportunity with Chatsworth – a sales outlet that immediately would help us,” explains Mr Sutton.

Several chats with DEFRA, however, established there were no grants to fund would-be farmer processors and little advice. Fortunately, Mr Sutton discovered The Ice Cream Alliance, a UK trade association, and spent the best part of two years phoning machine makers, packaging manufacturers and flavour sellers, to gather information.

Without doubt, he believes the best tip he picked up was to gain British Retail Consortium (BRC) accreditation for food hygiene. “It’s one of the top grades and The National Trust, supermarkets and hotels need it to be able trade with you.

“A lot of people don’t tell you it’s necessary if you want to grow your business. And it’s a slow process – you need 6-12 months’ production behind you. We also found the local environmental health officer to be helpful.”

Dairy cows in summer

It can be a long road to market when developing your own retail brand, so ensuring your product is in demand is essential.

As much time and effort was then spent on packaging design as getting the actual taste and texture of their ice cream just right. Under The Cowhouse Dairy brand, Mr Sutton created an upmarket Chatsworth ice cream, plus The Udder Stuff aimed at a more funky, younger consumer.

“We use no additives, just milk, cream, eggs and sugar, with natural flavourings. We started in summer 2006 with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and now have 11 flavours including ginger and lavender.”

Despite the helping hand from Chatsworth’s retail outlets, Mr Sutton soon discovered that many possible outlets were initially enthusiastic, but reluctant to commit to stocking ice cream when it came to the crunch. Leg work and free samples, rather than advertising, have since built up a cross section of stockists, from the local National Trust, grocers and restaurants, to cinemas, garden centres and farmers markets.

Mr Sutton finds local people like to know where their food comes from, while stockists enjoy dealing with the farmer who milks his own cows and processes the milk.

And the phone rings more often with orders including, last year, Tesco. It contacted the family to be a supplier of local food, selling the ice cream in 18 Derbyshire and Staffordshire stores. This year, it will be in 50 stores throughout the Midlands, adds Mr Sutton.

Ice cream is now made two days a week, from one day’s milk, with part-time help and a driver delivering in the family’s own freezer van.

All pots are filled by hand to keep the traditional “hand made” feel. The bar code, flavour and date are also added by hand. However, increasing sales now justify fully-printed pots plus a second filling machine, reveals Mr Sutton. “We need to buy 25,000 to 30,000 pots to make it economic and you have to get the orders up front. They cost more, but it saves manual time.”

The next step is to capitalise on the omega-3 being added to the cows’ TMR diet and market the ice cream for its omega-3 content. Mr Sutton would also like to continue growing the ice cream business, but will prefer to rely on bought-in milk, rather than sell the cows to expand.

“We hope to be up to five days of ice cream making in another couple of years. But our aim is always to process our own milk and make sure we make our own product. When we can afford it, we will employ people on the ice cream.”

cow in the freezer

Quirky marketing has helped take the Sutton family’s ice cream to younger consumers, boosting sales.

The Cowhouse dairy ice cream

  • Start with retail outlets before recipe
  • Get good package design
  • Get accreditation
  • Use samples to sell the product