And while many farmers see the need to diversify, the thought of trying something new coupled with the cost of investing in new equipment, is often too prohibitive.
But help may now be at hand thanks to the Peak District Dairy Wagon, a co-operative run by nine dairy farmers and farmers’ wives, which allows them, and others, the opportunity to learn new skills and consider new business ideas.
The idea for the wagon — a mobile creamery — goes back to a Making The Most Of Your Milk campaign run by the Peak District National Park Authority and the University of Derby in 2002.
More than 60 local dairy farmers attended a series of taster sessions looking at the viability of using their milk to make products like cheese and yoghurt. As a result, more than half of the farmers decided to explore the idea further by registering for longer sessions at Reaseheath College, a centre of excellence for dairy technology at Nantwich.
Being able to try their hand at making cheese, yoghurt and ice cream fired up their interest and enthusiasm but the practicalities of travelling to the college weren’t ideal. But neither were the financial implications of the obvious alternatives — it would cost a farmer at least £60,000 to set up and run a cheese making plant on their farm or a similar amount to outsource the production to an established cheese maker.
So, while they were up to their elbows in cheese curd, Dairy Wagon founder members Sue Prince and Sarah Helliwell started considering the potential of a mobile facility that could travel from one farm to another, allowing everyone to try new ideas or make new products from their own farms. Having learned that it only takes eight hours to make some cheeses, the idea seemed viable.
As the idea developed — and it became clear that what was being considered would be the first of its kind — the nine-strong group of farmers started talking to the Leicester and County Co-operative Development Agency (now known as CaSE-da) about the possibility of running the Dairy Wagon as a co-op.
The challenge of turning the idea into reality was a significant one but the co-operative was able to work again with Reaseheath College who built the wagon.
Funding was another challenge, but with the backing of the Co-operative Fund, as well as others, the necessary funds were raised. Co-operative Secretary Tina Bowler is particularly grateful for the backing of the Co-operative Fund: “As farmers our speciality is farming. Filling in grant applications can be a very daunting business but the Co-operative Fund was fantastic and very supportive. And having their support in place at an early stage made it so much easier to attract other funding.”
The Peak District Dairy Wagon was officially launched by Prince Charles who had followed the co-operative’s progress closely, having previously met members and arranged support through his Business In The Community charity. And having friends in high places certainly has its advantages. Following a word from Prince Charles’ people, the local Jaguar dealer supplied the co-operative with a top of the range Landrover free of charge.
Members of the co-operative now book the wagon for whenever they require it on their farm and already a number of members have begun the diversification process — John and Jane Marsden produce their own Hope Valley ice cream while Tina Bowler is herself considering small scale cheese production and a local delivery service.
The co-operative will be spending the summer visiting local shows to recruit more farmer members and Tina Bowler sees the potential for other similar facilities in other parts of the country. Tina, and her fellow members know the wagon isn’t the answer to all of their concerns, but it’s a help: “Farming is all we know. It’s not just a job, it’s a fantastic way of life and our farms are our homes. If we couldn’t farm, we wouldn’t know what to do.
”Having the Dairy Wagon helps us to use our farms and our skills in different ways — and hopefully provide a better future for us and our families.”