The future looked grim for dairy farmers Katherine Hamilton and her family - but then they discovered MilkRound, a new way of bringing milk and dairy goods straight to the doors of their growing customer base.
It’s saved their business. “I can’t recommend them enough,” says Katherine.
By January 2020, the writing looked to be on the milking shed wall at Plurenden Manor Farm in picturesque High Halden, Ashford, Kent.
Rising costs. Shrinking contracts. Sinking moral. It was keeping Katherine Hamilton - who runs the farm with her husband, parents and two brothers - awake at night.
“Making a living on the farm seemed harder year after year - and it just shouldn’t be like that,” she says, with a sigh.
You might think that producing milk - an ever-present feature in every family’s fridge, a nutritious staple of our diets for centuries - would, by now, be a well-honed and profitable task.
You might think that. But you’d be wrong.
“Basically, we’re dictated to by the big producers,” says Katherine. “Every year or so, they’ll send us a letter saying: ‘Thanks for all your hard work - but we’re now reducing our payments to you by 1p per litre’.”
Go back seven or eight years, and Plurenden Manor Farm was getting 28p for every litre of milk it produced. Today, it’s 25.
“Everything else - vets bills, feeds, all of our overheads - has gone up. But our payment has come down.” It costs 30p to produce a litre of milk, she says. “When the lorries used to come to fetch our milk, I honestly felt like it was being stolen.”
Katherine and her family have run Plurenden Manor Farm for 12 years. They wondered if they would make year 13. You don’t have to be a business wizard to see where it was all leading.
“We had a big family meeting in January 2020 and we wondered, all of us, if we could make the farm work,” she says.
Plurenden Manor is a big farm - 800 acres, 400 dairy cows nestled deep in the Ashford countryside in the Garden of England, rural Kent. They didn’t want to quit the farm. They were proud farmers. They took the job seriously.
But they also needed to survive.
There was one obvious pathway, says Katherine - and that was bypassing the big boys, the mass producers and supermarkets, and going back to what farms and dairies did years ago. Selling milk directly to customers.
“We started this on a fairly small scale a few years ago - and then two things happened which escalated it. People like David Attenborough started this big conversation about where our produce was coming from, how was it produced - and we noticed a huge rise in demand in people coming to the farm to buy direct from us.”
Katherine started to diversify into other lines - butter, clotted cream - and sold them at shows and farmers’ markets.
Then the Covid pandemic arrived and the supermarket shelves were quickly empty of milk. Customers started to come directly to their farm.
“One of our contracts was to provide milk for coffee shops and airlines - and, of course, that just went, like that. There were no flights. Coffee shops closed. And that was that,” she says. “All gone.
“But, at the same time, we were getting more people coming to us directly for our milk and produce. They didn’t want to go to supermarkets.”
This, thought Katherine, was their obvious way out. Their salvation.
“Our newsagent recommended PaperRound, and said maybe they could help us. So I called them.”
It was the start of an innovative and interactive new working relationship. “We said: 'Look, here’s what we’d like - is it possible?’ and I think, at first, it was a bit problematic. It hadn’t been done before. But they could see the gap, and they could see that with a few tweaks it could work.
“They went away and made it happen. They built new software, MilkRound, for us and an app for our customers. And, quite simply, we’ve gone back to what we used to do, as a nation, 40 or 50 years ago. We’re delivering milk to people’s doors - but in an easy and interactive, digital way.”
This means milk bottles, not plastic. Bottles which are washed and re-used. Milk straight from the diary. Other goods, too - all delivered by an electric vehicle.
“It’s amazing isn’t - this is what we were doing a generation ago, but this is what people want now. No plastic. And people sending their empties back,” Katherine smiles.
The MilkRound software keeps a tab of what their customers need - and when they need it. Customers can change their orders the day before on their app - or, says Katherine, they can leave a note in the top of their empty bottle. Whatever is easier.
“The software works out what the drivers needs on their float, even the best route - it’s incredible,” she adds.
What it’s given the farm, she says, is a viable alternative to the shrinking cheques offered by the big boys. But more than that - it’s offered them a life line. It’s saved their business.
“A year ago, I wasn’t sure we’d make it,” she says.
“Now I feel positive. Our aim is to do more of this - and less of the big supermarket deals.
“And MilkRound have been brilliant with us. Their support is fantastic. We couldn’t have done it without them. They listened to us - and they made it work.”