What are the issues in dairy farming at the moment? And is diversification one of the solutions? At Farm Zone, we recently spoke to Nunton Farm Dairy – a key customer of Bright Maize – to find out.
Nunton Farm Dairy is a 1,200 acre dairy operation near Salisbury run by father and son team Simon and John Martin. The family has farmed here since 1929 and, after speaking with John Martin, we were left in no doubt that Nunton Farm Dairy looks set to be in the hands of the Martin family for many decades to come.
Other than milk price, farmers cite severe staff shortage and increasingly unpredictable weather as the main challenges facing the sector. For Nunton Farm Dairy, there’s no question that over the last six months, the problem has been finding staff. In fact, an inability to find the staff that they need is a key reason many dairy farmers leave the industry altogether. Ultimately, many job seekers just do not consider farming work as an option.
According to John, “It starts at schools, which maybe don’t paint farming in glorious colours. Not that they vilify us, but I don’t think teachers instinctively convey to children that a career in farming is something they do have the option to consider. Part of the problem – and the potential solution – lies with people like me and my dad because, as farmers, we all need to get better at engaging with local people in our communities.”
“Here at Nunton Farm Dairy, we operate what we call Open Farm Sunday where we invite the public onto the farm to learn about what we do. For us, this has been a great success. And indeed it’s helped us with recruitment. One of the guys who works for us now initially met us on an Open Farm Sunday. He just dropped by for a tour and loved it. And it made him want to get a job here.”
If Nunton can keep up that sort of occasional recruitment it would likely solve many of their problems. But they also want to reach out to the younger generation and that’s why they run regular kids’ and local school tours over the summer period. “I am hopeful that if we keep doing that then ultimately we’ll recruit one or two of those school leavers when they leave school” says John.
Many dairy farms are coping with the current challenging market conditions by diversifying, and Nunton Farm Dairy is no exception. Farm Zone has encountered dairy farmers trying a wide range of diversification projects. At Nunton, they’ve gone into local milk vending as their core diversification activity. This is not part of the raw milk trend: Nunton has invested heavily – around £60,000 – in equipment including modern pasteurising, vending and bottle-dispensing machinery. They were helped out with this investment because they received LEADER funding from the rural development program for England. The funding covered about 40% of the cost of the equipment.
“Milk vending is our core diversification project as a business. It means we can sell milk direct to the customer. For us, the core benefit is that we can sell our milk at £1.10 per litre, as opposed to the standard price of 27-33p we get from Blackmore Vale, our main dairy customer. That said, Blackmore Vale have been great to us, and they are highly supportive of our milk vending project – we’ve been lucky in that regard” says John.
Currently, Nunton Farm has two vending machines – one near the farm and another in Wilton. Sales are going well, with about 6,500 litres being shifted this month.
“For the future, we want to expand things”, John adds. “Currently a lot of my time is taken up trying to sort out the labour shortage problems we are having. When this is resolved, I want to increase our number of local dairy machines ultimately to 5 or 6”.
Nunton Farm is selling reusable glass milk bottles to customers. And they are full of creative ideas – such as setting up dispensaries at their vending machines which allow customers to mix themselves a milkshake on the spot using flavoured syrups. Ultimately, they aim to sell 10% of their milk via their vending machines.
“The goal is definitely to keep things local – within 15 to 20 minutes of the farm. My view is that the direction the milk market is going is towards local produce with customers increasingly demanding products where they can be confident that animals enjoy high welfare standards, high quality and fewer food miles; as well as packaging that is both minimal and recyclable. With Nunton Farm Dairy’s milk vending customers, they can be absolutely sure all these things are true. And if they’ve got any concerns, they can pop over for an Open Farm Sunday and see for themselves!”