Selling sheeps milk by post
has proved a true liquid
asset for 25-year-old
Sam Williams who recently
collected the NFUs Young
Farmer of the Year award,
reports Mike Stones
FANCY some sheeps milk? Nutritious, delicious and very hard to find. Not any more; thanks to the enterprise of Herefordshire sheep producer Sam Williams. His decision to sell sheep milk by post and the business flair he displayed in turning his plans into reality netted him the coveted Young Farmer of the Year accolade in NFU Presidents Awards 2001.
Sams triumph can trace its roots back to the high price of cow milk quota. "After I left Reaseheath agricultural college in Cheshire to take over the farm four years ago, high quota prices put me off milking cows. Id always been interested in milking sheep and was lucky to find a producer who wanted to sell his flock."
After acquiring his first 150 Friesland ewes, Sam has built the flock up to 400 milking ewes and followers. Theres also a small flock of pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters.
A hefty bank loan to convert the old dairy parlour at the 40ha (100 acre) Llanbaddon Farm, Michaelchurch, Eskley, Hereford, allowed Sam to start milking. But not before coping with a maze of health and safety regulations. "There was a lot of red tape but our local environmental health officers were helpful," he recalls.
At first, all the milk was sold on to cheese and icecream makers, but Sam saw the prospect of a more lucrative and independent future. After much research, he decided to bottle milk and sell it directly to consumers by post.
"I wanted to expand our milk sales because it puts us one step closer to the end customer. That reduces our dependence on one or two key buyers and allows us to tailor our product to consumer demand," explains Sam.
Sheep milk is sold to customers from the south coast to Scotland who have allergies to milk from cows or goats. "Sheep milk can also be highly beneficial to people who suffer with asthma and eczema and for those who need diets rich in vitamins and minerals," he says.
A key factor was the discovery that thanks to Parcel Force, he could deliver milk directly to customers throughout the UK for the same price as charged by health food shops. That led to his mail order delivery service, which began in the summer of 1999.
About 80% of the farms output of 120,000 litres/year of sheep milk is sold on to icecream and cheese makers and the remainder is pasteurised and frozen in 500ml bottles for postal delivery.
Lambs are reared and sold deadweight through a local marketing co-op or kept as replacements.
Vital to his success has been his ability to supply milk throughout the year thanks to a novel application of lighting technology. "Using lights designed to help people suffering from Seasonally Affected Disorder allows us to supply milk year round without using chemicals," says Sam.
From August until the spring, lights operate from 5am until 10pm to simulate the duration of spring and summer daylight. Lights are also used to get the ewes mated in the spring by reducing the daylight hours six weeks before tupping.
The results have been stunningly successful, he claims. "Before introducing the lights any ewes lambed in the autumn would yield about half the output of a spring lambing ewe and dry up by Christmas. But with the lights we are able to produce milk evenly throughout the year."
Output now averages about 300 litres/ewe a year.
But its not just hands-on farming that fires Sams business imagination and so impressed the judges of the Young Farmer award. "Im particularly interested in marketing my business effectively to develop its full potential."
Marketing has taken the form of advertising in womens magazines and health journals, printing leaflets for distribution and seeking editorial coverage from the national media. "After sending milk samples and details to various editors, my sheep milk business has featured in 15 national titles including: The Daily Express, Choice, Prima and Country Life in addition to local radio and BBC Breakfast News.
A quarterly newsletter is distributed to regular customers with information on new recipe ideas.
Sales on web
But it is the businesss web-site, www.sheepmilk.co.uk, receiving up to 50 visits a day, which accounts for nearly half of his 30,000/year bottle milk sales. Web-site sales offer extra convenience for customers, he believes.
"Allowing customers to buy day or night on the internet fits in well with their busy lifestyle." Customers can buy by card or cheque over the phone.
No stranger to competition success, Sams bottle-by-post initiative won him the Country Life Innovation of the Year award in November 1999 and the Sir John Langman Memorial Award.
Breeding pedigree Bluefaced Leicester sheep is another variation on his theme of profitable sheep production. Having sold top ram lambs at 1550 guineas, its certainly a profitable sideline. Sam shows pedigree lambs at both local and national Bluefaced Leicester events. And he has a wall-full of rosettes to prove his success including Male Champion at the Royal Welsh Show and twice Champion Pen at the Wales and Border region progeny show. Determined to put something back into the breed, Sam is also a member of the Bluefaced Leicester Council representing the Wales and Border Region.
Looking ahead, Sam plans to further add value to his sheep milk and strengthen links with his customers by extending his product range to include yoghurts, icecream and other products. Always attuned to new business possibilities, Sam is considering co-operation. "Im looking at whether these products could be best made on the farm or by joining up with existing processors. We can then create a one-stop shop for every product made from sheep milk."
Lifting sheep milk sales is not the limit of Sams ambitions. He believes theres a growing demand for high quality convenience food. "I want to start sourcing quality, locally-produced food, cook it and freeze it in meal sized portions ready to sell to consumers in the same way as sheeps milk. Itll offer the perfect combination; quick to make meals that are still packed with all the goodness of top quality food."
Lots of bottle; About 20% of the farms milk is bottled with the remainder being sold on to cheese and icecream makers. Sam wants to lift liquid sales.
Sams business flair and determination to turn good ideas into money-making reality netted him the NFUs coveted Young Farmer of the Year award sponsored by Tesco.
Dedicated in the dairy; Sam Williams (pictured) runs 400 milking ewes, yielding 120,000 litres of milk a year, at Llanbaddon farm, Michaelchurch, Eskley, Hereford.