Milkman Mike is a character you will not be familiar with but he was a jolly chap with a dog called Spike brought to life through adventures written for our own enjoyment by myself and sons Russ and Stew when they were kids.
Mike may have lost his job some years ago if he’d lived in the real dairy world. Falling milk price to farmers and supermarkets selling milk at well below the cost of production are two recurring headlines today but his profession has been in danger for decades.
Doorstep delivery of milk suffered a dramatic decline from the 1970s but Acorn Dairy based at Garthorne Farm in Archdeacon Newton on the edge of Darlington is championing its return in significant numbers.
Twenty per cent of the dairy’s sales now come from 3,500 doorstep customers within a 15-mile radius of their 300-cow dairy farm tenanted from the Church Commission. It employs six mikmen to make deliveries in Darlington, Northallerton, Richmond and Bedale.
What also makes Acorn Dairy different to others is it produces organic milk. Organic milk still comes from cows; the only differences are that the land can’t have fertilisers and pesticides put onto it and the cows must have an intake of 60 per cent forage. They’re still milked in the same way at 5am and 4pm every day.
Brother and sister Graham Tweddle and Caroline Bell are partners in the farm and dairy that sees them as farmers, processors and retailers at both Garthorne Farm and Hallwith Farm, a young stock farm in Wensleydale.
Graham explains the move to organic dairy farming: “I studied food marketing at Harper Adams agricultural college and was keen to find a way in which I could join dad (Gordon) in the family business on my return.
“We took the view that to make the farm sustainable we were going to have to tap into the retail price for food and sell our own milk direct. Darlington has a population of 100,000 people so why couldn’t they buy our milk?
“At the same time dad was questioning the pressure we were putting on the cows to achieve high yields.
“If we were going to go head-to-head with the likes of the Co-op we had to be different. That’s how the idea of going organic came about. It started as a marketing tool but our belief in it is now deep-rooted.
“My firm belief is once you’ve seen an organic-based relaxed cow you’ll never go back to what you had before. We started conversion of the land to organic status in 1998 and Acorn Dairy was born in 2000.
“We have Dairy Shorthorns and Swedish Reds that are very similar to an Ayrshire. We also have a French breed that is more commonly known in the UK as MRI and stands for Meuse-Rhine-Issel.
“We cross the three breeds with the aim of producing a cow that will give 6,500 litres of milk per year off forage and doesn’t push them.
“When I’m asked to give talks to young farmers groups and other organisations I tell them that we’re looking for a Ford Mondeo cow, a run-of-the-mill muncher that will plod on and do the job we’re after. We don’t want, with due respect, a Holstein Ferrari running around and burning itself out.”
Caroline returned to the farm and dairy in 2004 after studying at Newcastle University.
“We wanted to push on with sales and distribution and market ourselves far more and now we’re selling in a number of nearby towns including Northallerton, Richmond, Newton Aycliffe and Barnard Castle.
“We have café customers and both Darlington and Newcastle councils buy from us. Our wholesale side sees us up and down the A1 from Leeds to Newcastle.”
Across the farm, the processing site and the delivery areas, Acorn Dairy now employs a team of 34 staff but while much may have changed at Archdeacon Newton since Graham and Caroline’s great uncle Charlie Tweddle came to the village in the 1920s, there are those that have come full circle.
“Charlie was putting milk on doorsteps from a horse and cart back then,” says Caroline.
Perhaps there’s hope for Milkman Mike yet.
Going direct pays off
Graham and Caroline recognise their milk will never be as cheap as the larger dairies’ and that their greatest competition is the weekly supermarket shop but they are achieving a respectable share of the market.
“We canvass heavily and increasingly we’re finding that doorstep delivery is something that people who’ve never had it before really enjoy.
“Our current advertising campaign states 54p a pint on your doorstep with no delivery cost. That’s cheaper than water.
“We also offer two weeks’ free milk and that’s still our canvassing policy for getting new customers.”