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The cream of the dairies
The gentle purr of the milk float, and the ‘whup’ as it took the speed hump woke me up at 5.30am every day for a decade.Then one day I realised I had not heard it for a while. Door-to-door deliveries had clearly become a thing of the past, because everyone was buying their milk from supermarkets, along with the rest of their groceries.
Or so I thought. But on moving house I discovered that in some communities the milk round is alive and thriving.
Our milk now comes once a week in a small van, not a float, and in litre-sized glass bottles instead of pints. It is unhomogenised, certified organic by the Soil Association, and has a generous two inches of cream on top.
The milk is produced by 19 handsome brown and white Ayrshire cows that graze 40 acres of rolling hillside above North Aston, near Bicester.
They are milked four at a time, twice a day, in the parlour of North Aston Dairy, a small farming business jointly owned by Matt Dale, business partner Katharina Rohts, and members of the local community who have invested in ‘cow bonds’.
A cow bond is just like a regular bond. It is a fixed term investment for five years and the current rate of return is three per cent a year. It is a way for customers to provide finance to fund the purchase of a milking cow and some investors have even named their cow!
Ms Rohts’ grandparents had a farm, but Mr Dale did not grow up in a farming family — his father taught the violin. It was on childhood visits to farming friends in Devon that he discovered his vocation.
Having attended agricultural college and tried various types of farming he returned to his first love, dairying. He set up the business four-and-a-half years ago, after doing some informal market research to find out whether people wanted to buy local milk.
The answer was a definite ‘yes’, and the core of the business is still the twice-weekly milk round which serves people living within two-and-a-half miles of the dairy. There is also a weekly round in Wolvercote, near Oxford, making about 250 customers in total.
People who do not live in either of these areas can buy North Aston milk on Saturdays from East Oxford Farmers’ Market and on Sundays from Wolvercote Farmers’ Market.
To minimise start-up costs Mr Dale bought second-hand equipment and the dairy shares office space and delivery costs with a sister business, the vegetable box scheme run by North Aston Organics.
They also co-operate with Willowbrook Farm, which sells organic, free-range eggs.
The business is not in direct competition with the big supermarkets as it is offering a product they do not stock — single herd, unhomogenised milk and cream.
Most of the milk we drink goes through the industrial process of homogenisation. This involves mixing milk that has come from many different dairies, then forcing it at high pressure through small holes to create a permanent emulsion, so that the cream does not separate out from the rest of the milk.
“They take the milk apart and put it back together,” explained Ms Rohts.
The benefit is a long shelf life, but at the expense of taste and texture.
“Once people have tried our milk, they realise it is something very different from what they buy in a supermarket,” she added.
The taste of North Aston milk varies with the season, being particularly rich when the grass is at its greenest. In winter the cows are fed on hay whenever possible, rather than silage, again with the aim of producing milk that tastes natural and creamy.
Mr Dale’s initial research showed that most customers did want their milk to be pasteurised. This is done at a temperature of 72 degrees centigrade for 20 seconds, to conserve nutrients and taste that would be compromised by pasteurisation at higher temperatures. The process gives the milk a shelf life of a week.
Two thirds of sales are of whole milk, and one third semi-skimmed, which is slightly more expensive to reflect the greater work required in producing it — £1.25 a litre compared to £1.05 a litre for whole milk.
Supermarket milk is sold in plastic bottles or plastic-covered cardboard cartons but most North Aston milk is sold in litre sized glass bottles. Mr Dale found it surprisingly hard to source them, eventually obtaining some from Holland.
Ninety-nine per cent are returned, sterilised and reused. He has calculated this approach creates only one third of the carbon footprint that using disposable plastic bottles would.
The enthusiastic support of customers is essential to the dairy’s success, and each month’s milk bill comes with a newsletter about developments, such as the birth of calves or the effect of the weather on haymaking, with the names of all 19 cows, from Pansy to Hendrika listed at the bottom.
Customers are invited to visit in small groups to see the cows being milked.
Plans for the future involve a gradual diversification into mixed farming with all the other activities linking in to the herd.
Mr Dale added: “I think dairying should be at the heart of farming.”