Taw River Dairy
Dairy farmers Sam Bullingham and Katie Bray have adapted their organic milk and ice cream business to meet new challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic came just three years after Sam and Katie had set up Taw River Dairy near Okehampton in North Devon. “To be honest, I thought it was going to be a nightmare because we’re a fairly new business with lots of overheads,” says Sam. “In fact, we’ve found that more people have decided to support local producers and we’re actually doing well.”
After starting with just 10 cows on 40 acres of land, Sam and Katie now have a 70-strong herd of pasture-fed, pure-bred, and Jersey crosses, producing 2,500 litres of milk a week. Based on strong ethical principles, the 400-acre farm employs the equivalent of six fulltime staff, making luxury ice creams and selling organic milk and giftware.
A major income stream for the business over the summer is selling ice creams and sorbets from an ice cream van at fairs and events. Suddenly faced with an empty calendar, the business had to adapt quickly to find new ways of selling its produce.
“We’ve had to improvise and change things,” says Sam. “We’re doing retail deals for people buying from the farm so, for example, they can come and buy ice cream and a pack of waffle cones to enjoy ice creams in the garden at home. That’s really helped us reach new customers.”
Perhaps the biggest new development has been the launch of an ice cream delivery service, with the Taw River Dairy ice cream van covering the local area around South Tawton, North Tawton and Okehampton. The van has also been used to deliver food to vulnerable people.
“Early on we wanted to help to get essentials to those who were self-isolating, so we worked with other local suppliers to sell things like eggs, bread, milk and sausages from our ice cream van,” Sam says. “I also went out to deliver food to vulnerable households, which is something I’m still doing.
“When the restrictions were slightly relaxed we started selling ice creams while continuing to deliver essentials, which has been really successful.”
Taw River Dairy’s milk sales were also affected by the closure of cafes and a number of local shops. While continuing to sell from the farm gate and supplying the shops that remained open, Sam and Katie grew their online sales through partnerships with delivery companies, such as Pipers Farm.
“Overall, we’ve sold about the same amount even with some shops closed and coffee shops not able to open,” says Sam.
The couple have used social media to promote their produce to new customers in the local area and to keep in touch with their existing following.
“I always knew I’d want to market direct to customers and we’ve always focused on showing people where their food comes from,” Sam explains. “The coronavirus pandemic has meant we’ve had to do that in a different way. It has helped us reach new customers and we’ve had brilliant feedback from them.”
Sam hopes that many of these new customers will continue to buy their milk. The Taw River Dairy cows are 100 per cent pasture-fed, which produces milk with higher levels of omega 3, vitamin E and antioxidants. “Happy cows make better quality milk,” he says. “Ours are grazing for as much of the year as possible and rear their own calves, which is very, very unusual these days. We only milk them once a day, after they have fed their calves. We are one of the few dairies in the country to work this way, but it’s the way our grandparents kept dairy cows. It’s a big attraction for a lot of our customers and a point of difference for our products.”
While Katie grew up on a dairy farm on the Lizard Peninsula, Sam grew up in Okehampton but spent his spare time on his grandparents’ smallholding near Dartmoor. “I was there as much as possible,” he says. “I always enjoyed being outdoors and always loved animals. I got my first lambs for my seventh birthday and it progressed from there.” As well as continuing to keep sheep on the land he rented from a neighbour, Sam worked as a shearing contractor and farm hand, including gaining experience of rearing calves.
“We’re tenant farmers who started with nothing,” says Sam. “I think our story shows that you don’t need a big empire if you can offer something different and create good quality produce. We’ve gone from 10 to more than 70 cows and from 40 to 400 acres, which is pretty amazing really.
“Sometimes I stop and think ‘I don’t know how we got here.’ There’s no denying it’s hard work but the farm is a fantastic place to be bringing up our daughter and we wouldn’t have this life, if we didn’t work as hard.”
South West rural insurer Cornish Mutual provides cover for Taw River Dairy’s fleet of vehicles, as well as the farm and business. “One of the biggest attractions for us is their fleet policy,” says Sam. “We’ve got multiple drivers of different ages delivering and driving for us so it’s worth its weight in gold.
“We’ve had to make a few claims over the years and there’s never been a problem. Cornish Mutual just focus on getting it sorted - it’s really easy. It’s having that confidence that we are covered and the ease of it all that makes it work for us.”
Cornish Mutual local insurance advisor E-J Auger advises the business on its insurance needs. “As a business that relies heavily on events, as well as supplying coffee shops, Taw River Dairy was faced with a really difficult situation when the pandemic hit,” she says. “They have adapted and diversified to keep the business going, while also providing a vital lifeline for their local community by getting essential produce to those who haven’t been able to get out.
“As tenant farmers, Sam and Katie started their farm and business completely from scratch. They are very driven and have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. The way they have responded during the crisis shows just how resilient their business is. They have not only adapted to the challenges but embraced them.”
While Sam and Katie are continuing to deal with daily challenges of life during the coronavirus pandemic, they are also starting to focus on the future for Taw River Dairy.
“The last few months have been a challenge,” says Sam. “For the first two or three weeks it felt unsustainable but we’ve settled into a new way of working. We never used to go out to the local towns and villages selling ice creams, but it is something we might keep doing as it’s been so well received. We may also continue to collaborate with other local suppliers to sell their produce too.
“We’d usually be selling from our ice cream van at several events a week over the summer and we are really missing that but we are in a much better position than many businesses as we’ve been able to keep going.
“A lot of our new customers hadn’t even heard of us before this happened, but they’re now hooked and say they will still come and buy from us. I suppose we were there for them when they needed us and they’ll remember that.”