No one would deny that farmers face difficult times. The farmers that are most likely to come through these difficulties with success are those with an enterprising outlook. This may mean being very efficient at the production of a major commodity such as milk or grain. Another strategy is to identify a particular niche in the market and fill it with a high value added product that meets a particular consumer need.
The latter strategy is the one that has been followed by two farmers I visited in the hill farming area of West Herefordshire near the national border between England and Wales. One farmer has effectively moved out of farming to become a food processor and retailer. The other is concentrating on the production of sheep's milk as his main product. One of his main customers is the other farmer who uses the sheep's milk to produce ice cream which he sells in his own retail outlet in the town of Hay-on-Wye, famous for its numerous second hand bookshops.
The first farmer I visited has a farm deep in a remote valley on a minor road off a minor road (directions for getting there involve locating a ruined castle). He moved to the farm in 1984 and initially ran a conventional cattle and sheep rearing enterprise. About a decade ago he moved into milking sheep and making ice cream from the milk. The attraction of ice cream made from sheep's milk is that it has a much lower fat content and a lighter taste than the equivalent product made from cow's milk. He initially sold his product as shows and events, and he still does that, although the market has become more competitive.
The cattle enterprise was disposed of (fortuitously) just before the BSE episode. As a neighbouring farmer was entering sheep milking, he decided to discontinue producing his own milk and concentrate on production and distribution. The farm's land was rented out to a neighbouring farmer and the sheep quota leased out (for the permissible three year period).
In order to secure a more regular outlet for his product the farmer acquired retail premises in the town of Hay-on-Wye, just across the national border in Wales. Operating across the border has its advantages and disadvantages. It means dealing with two sets of environmental health officers, but it also means that the business can be represented as both English and Welsh, appearing in directories on both sides of the border.
Hay-on-Wye is famous for its second hand bookshops which means that there is a regular tourist clientele. However, the opening of an ice cream parlour also serving coffee has been welcomed by the local population. The parlour opened at the beginning of April 2000, but is already doing well. I was able to taste some of the ice cream and I can confirm that it has a distinctive and very palatable taste. Please scroll down to the end of the page for photographs of the interior and exterior.
The first farmer offers an effective example of moving out of farming into a vertically integrated enterprise producing a high value added product. Most of the ice cream is made on the farm, although there is a small machine at the parlour. Some use has been made of skimmed sheep's milk powder in the production process, although considerable difficulty has recently been experienced in sourcing this from France. The retail premises do not display any statement that the product is made primarily from sheep's milk, although this is well known locally and is seen by customers as a plus point.
We then went to a hill farm which was formerly a dairy farm. The young farmer entering the family business decided to switch to milking sheep. Since the visit to the farm he has been named National Farmers' Union Young Farmer of the Year. There are now some eighty to ninety milking farms in the British Sheep Dairying Association. Some of these milk sheep as a sideline, whilst the largest milking flocks are around five hundred strong. The farm I visited was in the 300-400 range. A good milking ewe will produce a maximum of four litres a day: the equivalent for a cow might be around sixty litres. However, sheep's milk can command a much higher price because of its high calcium content and its value to sufferers from various allergies.
The principal customers for the milk are cheesemakers. This means that the milk has to be delivered all over the country in a specially adapted pick up truck. Distribution is therefore a significant expense. Most customers would receive deliveries weekly or fortnightly. Some of the milk goes to the ice cream operation described above. The farmer has also developed a direct sales service for individual consumers. The milk is frozen and sent to customers (typically in London) in twelve or twenty-four litre packs. It retails at £1.30 a litre including delivery charges.
Some farms operate on a 250 day lactation period, but cheesemakers need milk all the year round. There is therefore a cycle of births throughout the year. I saw a group of sheep that were born in January. Lambing was also in progress while I was on the farm, one ewe producing three lambs while I watched.
It was slightly odd seeing a flock of baaing sheep waiting to be milked. However, standard milking parlour equipment can be used. Mastitis is not a major problem, although no doubt this is in part down to good management. Some local sheep farmers take a conservative stance to the idea of milking sheep, complaining that they have seen too many poor udders.
I came away from visit having seen a practical demonstration of the value of moving into a niche, higher value added product. However, such an effort does require business skills that may not be possessed by all farmers. While this kind of development can be a way forward for some farmers, it is not an answer for all of them.
The first photograph below shows the interior of the ice cream parlour. There is an area of seating up the stairs. The second photograph is an exterior shot.
Dept. of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick CV4 7AL