BARWICK FARM Organic Dairy Products could quite rightly be described as a resounding success story, scooping awards and accolades almost as quickly as new customers.
But when Nick and Barbara Michell took their first steps into on-farm processing, little did they realise what the future held in store.
Barwick Farm, Tregony, Cornwall, is a county council farm, which six years ago ran to just 17ha (42 acres). Milk prices had fallen sharply and in April 1999 the Michells gave themselves just five months to return to profit or give up the farm.
Unable to offer bed-and-breakfast or convert farm buildings, the couple decided to process the milk from their 40 Jerseys and sell it at local farmers’ markets. Armed with some homemade butter, cakes and biscuits, they set up at Truro farmers’ market and sold out within just two hours.
Buoyed by this success, the Michells expanded their range to include cream, clotted cream and milk, all initially processed in their small dairy and family kitchen using traditional recipes. They soon attended up to seven farmers’ markets a week on top of processing, farming, Mrs Michell”s part-time job as a school cook and looking after three young daughters.
But they were working 15-17 hours a day, so Mrs Michell gave up her job to concentrate on the business. A new contract with the local village shop and an organic shop in Truro was a turning point.
“The farmers’ markets were such hard work. They were very important and they got us to where we are now, but we couldn’t keep doing everything,” she says.
To supply retail outlets producers must have Environmental Health approval, which took 12 months to achieve, says Mr Michell. “Many a time we could have chucked in the towel. Environmental Health didn’t like on-farm processing and they still don’t. We just had to persevere.”
In 2002 the Michells invested £50,000 in extending the dairy, attracting £5000-£8000 of EU development funding. They installed a new pasteuriser, separator, bulk tanks, bottling machine, walk-in chiller cabinet and tables.
They also rented another 23ha (58 acres) and increased their herd size to 60 cows calving all year round, plus 38 youngstock. The herd now produces about 250,000 litres of milk a year at an average of 5.9% butterfat and 4.2% protein. Although 1000 litres a week is sold to Dairy Farmers of Britain, the couple hope to process all their own milk within the next year.
The farm became organic in 2003 and the couple contacted many potential outlets to boost business. “That’s when we were really able to move on,” says Mrs Michell.
The business has received a number of food and diversification awards and has even been acclaimed as a Rick Stein Food Superhero. “It is nice to be recognised,” says Mrs Michell.
“We”re on target for a £100,000 turnover this year,” says Mr Michell. The business is going from strength to strength, employing a relief milker and two part-timers in the dairy.
The Michells sought some help from Taste of the West over grant funding, but have never advertised their product or employed professional advice. “It has all been self-taught. We have learned an awful lot from our mistakes. If you’ve got a good product it will sell itself – word of mouth is the best form of advertising there is.”