The return of the small family dairy

Dairy Cows

The milk industry is a pertinent example of how the link between the consumer and the countryside has changed in two decades of consolidation, industrialisation and homogenisation. David Pollock goes to check if milk still comes from cows.

‘A lot of people’s attitude to milk now,’ says Hamish Miller of North Street Dairy in Forfar, ‘is that as long as it’s white and colours their tea, they couldn’t care less.’ North Street is a small processor so it doesn’t actually deal with the business of raising and milking the cows themselves, but it’s still part of that fading tradition of dairy produce being sourced and sold locally – the good old days of cream-capped milk which originated no more than five miles away being delivered to the customer’s doorstep in a foil-top glass bottle.

‘We don’t homogenise,’ says Miller simply. ‘Homogenisation, standardisation – all that’s doing is skimming off all the cream and then pasteurising at a higher temperature. It gives the milk enough of a shelf-life to be sold in supermarkets, but it kills the flavour of it.’

By diversifying into the local sale of home-made dairy products, the owners of many family dairy farms have found a handy new stream of revenue. The Devenick Dairy has been based near Banchory for over half a century, but it was only two years ago that they installed a processing plant to allow a move into the production of cheeses and yoghurts. ‘Quite simply the farm wasn’t big enough to support everyone,’ says Kenny Groat, who manages Devenick with his parents and brother, ‘and we weren’t going to make much more money by selling our milk. Now we supply hotels, restaurants, farm shops and delis, and we have a small farm shop of our own.’

As well as dairy produce, they also sell meat – itself a by-product of the dairy process.

Before this diversification, Devenick supplied one of the large dairy brands which was the only one in the area. The lack of competing buyers meant it felt they were being ‘held to ransom’ on the price of milk. Yet the wild fluctuations in the price of milk don’t exactly lend themselves to stability anyway. The price they were getting went as low as 16p a litre, before rising again to around 30p at the end of 2008. With the current financial crisis, though, he doesn’t expect that upward trend to continue, and speaks with a clear sense of relief when he describes the popularity of Devenick’s farm shop with local customers.

Where Devenick uses around 20 per cent of its milk for dairy produce and continues to sell the rest on, other farmer/processors seek to cut out the middleman and bottle their own milk. Donald Laird of Bonaly Dairy Farm in Loanhead is one example: ‘It cuts right down on the food miles if you produce your own milk for the local market, and there’s full traceability in there – you can make sure the cows are kept outside and fed on grass as much as possible, and that nothing is then added to the milk.’ Or, as Hamish Miller puts it, ‘you just hope the customers appreciate the personal touch.’

Bonaly Dairy Farm, Unit 8 Enterprise Centre, 1 Dryden Road, Loanhead, 0131 440 0110,
The Devenick Dairy, Banchory, Aberdeen, 01224 782476,
Graham’s Family Dairy, Airthrey Kerse Farm, Bridge of Allan,
North Street Dairy, 22 North Street, Forfar, 01307 643796

Devenick Dairy

Bishopston Farm, Banchory-Devenick, Aberdeenshire, AB12 4RS