The young Devon couple behind the Taw River Dairy
PUBLISHED: 11:57 06 March 2018 | UPDATED: 11:57 06 March 2018
It's hard work but a pair of young Devon dairy farmers are making a go of it, writes Catherine Courtenay
Within seconds of arriving at Taw River Dairy I’m offered a cup of tea by gran. “It’s the best milk you’ll ever taste,” she says proudly.
There’s a flurry of activity as gran pours tea and various family members appear, along with dogs, a cat, even a couple of inquisitive calves run up in the field alongside the bungalow where we’re sat, hanging their heads over the fence.
Taw River Dairy is the result of inspired thinking, brave financial decisions and sheer hard work. Sam Bullingham and Katie Bray produce top quality milk and ice cream from a small herd of pasture-fed Jersey and Jersey cross cows.
The young couple live with Sam’s gran at West Acre, a place he knows well having spent many weekends on its surrounding smallholding as a child. Gran used to live up on Dartmoor; the highest farm in the South West, she tells me, before recalling the time they were snowed in from Boxing Day to 4 March 1963, having supplies airlifted in by helicopter.
Sam’s parents weren’t farmers though, so he considers himself a first generation farmer.
“When I was about 10, as grandad became less able, I’d be catching his lambs for him. I’ve always loved being outside and with animals.”
Through meeting a New Zealander who came to the UK to work on farms, Sam ended up travelling the world as a sheep shearer.
“It would be eight hours shearing day after day; it was a good experience but I knew I wanted to be a farmer here.”
Back home he kept sheep, renting extra land adjoining West Acre, and did some contract calf rearing to boost his income. This led to work on a farm in Cornwall, which in turn led to him meeting Katie, whose parents were dairy farmers on the Lizard.
The couple applied for the tenancy of a Cornwall County Council farm. They just missed out, but continued to earn money with a view to achieving their dream of having their own farm. Katie was working as an agronomist for Riviera Produce, with Sam meanwhile moving between the calves on the Bodmin farm and his own flock of sheep at West Acre.
Sheep farming would never be profitable alone, so they knew they would need to diversify. “I threw the idea of ice cream into the ring,” says Sam.
The idea stuck. Katie, who never thought she’d ever leave Cornwall, she confesses, took the plunge with Sam, and they moved to West Acre last year to give it a go.
May 25, the date they started, is ingrained in their hearts, mainly because it was a very scary time financially. Katie had given up her job in March and although Sam was still working in Bodmin, he’d had no income since December because he was investing in buying a milking herd.
After tea we walk through their fields, leading down to the River Taw. Their cows are 100% pasture fed, none of the animals have had concentrated feed or antibiotics and calves stay with their mothers until they finish suckling.
Clover, bird’s foot trefoil, vetch, and plantain and chicory… Sam is pointing out the various herbs and different grasses growing in his meadows and hedgerows. He’s excited at the prospect of nurturing the plantlife and soil on which his animals graze and is planting 800m of hedgerow this winter. “By May next year 2018 we will be fully organic,” he says.
The calves run up to us, investigating the new arrivals in their field. “We let them hang out with mum for three to four months,” Sam explains.
“It makes sense. It’s less work as the cow rears the calves. At four months they’re fully established as grazers.”
Katie says: “It’s giving the calves a better start, they suckle when they want so they get stronger. You can see the difference in a calf reared by mum.”
Sam describes how he gradually built up the herd of 16 by acquiring “a few odds and sods”; it all seems fairly laid-back until he starts talking about A2.
I’d never heard of A2 milk, so named for the A2 protein it contains. “But you’ll start hearing about it more and more. In five years’ time everyone will know about it,” insists Sam. He patiently explains how most intensively reared dairy herds produce A1 protein milk but A2 milk is said to have much better health benefits including for people with intolerances. Sam has had all his herd tested and is working towards a complete A2 herd.
Katie, is the main ice cream maker, and when my tour of the farm ends, I’m shown her workshop where she experiments with creating the various flavours, using the gorgeous Jersey milk and their own cream.
It tastes just as you’d expect, creamy and rich and you savour every mouthful. Gran was right about the milk too; so different to the normal supermarket fare, this is something to be celebrated and treasured. It’s even sold in traditional glass bottles, deposit returnable of course – just another example of Sam and Katie’s admirable farming ethos.