Farm of the Week: All-in-one dairy farm limits risks

Andrew Hawkswell, in the bottling area with his daughter Megan, aged 16.
Andrew Hawkswell, in the bottling area with his daughter Megan, aged 16.
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Farmers up and down the country have been protesting about tumbling milk prices in recent weeks, but there’s one processor in North Yorkshire who will certainly never be bothering.

The Hawkswell family of Low Pond House Farm are producer-processors situated at the end of a country lane five miles from Bedale and quite a distance from any other larger processor. So how does the falling milk price have an effect on their business? Does it mean they are immune to the problems faced by their fellow dairy farmers? It appears not completely as Andrew Hawkswell points out.

“While we are insulated from yo-yo prices our biggest pressure comes from the headlines that you see when supermarkets advertise milk in their windows at a ridiculously low price. When our customers see prices such as 89p for two litres being touted the phone starts to ring here, but they understand and are generally receptive when we explain that it’s not a true price and that we can’t sell at that price ourselves. It’s still a massive issue for us though.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not competitive. We price our milk and cream based on the quantity delivered and the location. Our patch largely includes Bedale, Northallerton, Catterick, Leyburn, Middleham and Richmond with all the villages in between and around.

“We have two vans out on the road six days a week delivering to cafés, restaurants, independent retailers, private schools, school kitchens and care homes. We also supply roundsmen who collect from here. It’s a difficult way of adding value to what we produce through our herd of around 100 Holsteins but I like the fact that to an extent we control our own destiny.”

Hawkswell’s Pure Dales Milk is their more recently adopted moniker following a rebrand in 2010. A grant from Yorkshire Forward allowed them to renew and increase their bottling equipment and set up a new website, logo and freshly liveried vans. Andrew’s wife Liane explains how it has helped.

“It tells people that what we’re producing is a truly local product. All of the milk and cream we sell comes from this farm and nowhere else. We’ve had a lot of positive reaction to our vans and since everyone now uses Google to find things customers are reaching us via our website and ordering because they want to deal with local businesses.”

Andrew’s grandfather William took the tenancy of Low Pond House before the Second World War when it was a typical self-sufficient mixed farm. When Andrew’s father Bernard took over he built up the dairy herd. The move to being a producer-processor came 29 years ago when the Hawkswells purchased the bottling plant from a small processor in Leeming Bar.

Today the farm is still tenanted and runs to 205 acres with another 27 acres rented for summer grazing. Andrew grows around 30 acres of maize and 70 acres of wheat and barley. He runs a Holstein bull that serves the heifers with AI. The herd is sire-matched by Cogent which matches their stocks of bull semen with the appropriate cow, based on how each beast has been scored.

“We milk at 5.30 in the morning and 4 o’clock in the afternoon and without pushing them we get to a herd average of between 8,000-8,500 litres. We try to calve all year round in order to maintain a level profile but of course the milk production inevitably increases when the cows go out to fresh grass in the spring.”

The land itself provides its own challenges, he says: “This is a wet farm. Once it’s wet here it really is very wet. It’s quite heavy land and it holds the water like a sponge. That means we can’t do extended grazing. The cows are generally out from early April until mid-October but when we were faced with the kind of weather we had a couple of years ago they were barely out at all.”

Recently the Hawkswells purchased another processing firm to expand their area to Leyburn and Middleham. They’re now able to use around 80 per cent of what the herd produces, offering greater reassurance for their future but Andrew’s aware that he’s even further removed from the regular collections made from dairy farmers who don’t process their own milk.

“If we ever wanted to get out of the processing business and just put all of our milk into a tanker I’m not sure anyone would want to take it. We’re fortunate to be able to sell our surplus to Payne’s Dairies who collect every couple of days but we also understand there’s a cost in collecting our milk because of where we are.”

It’s a team effort at Low Pond House. Andrew’s parents Liz and Bernard are partners in the milk processing business, while it’s Andrew and Bernard who are partners in the farm.

Liane and Andrew have known each other since they were 10-years-old, when her mum was Andrew’s teacher at primary school in Thornton Watlass. Liane had embarked on a career at insurance firm General Accident but since their most recent acquisition she’s become more involved in Pure Dales.

The daily workload sees Bernard and Liane put the milk through the processing equipment for pasteurising, homogenising and separating with the help of a part-time assistant. Andrew works with the dairy herd and on the land and has a full-timer and part-timer with him. They have two van drivers, one of whom, Mark Wilson, has been with them for 15 years.

“Andrew has to cover for everyone’s holidays,” says Liane. “And I’ve given up my previous job to run the dairy side. This year things were so busy with covering for others that we had to have separate holidays. Andrew went playing golf for his break and I took our daughters Megan and Rosie to Mallorca for a spot of sunshine therapy. We really need to find someone local who can help share the load in the dairy processing side soon, so if you know of anyone let us know too!”