Farm of the Week: Hanging tough in dairy is no easy ride out east

Eric Varley at Stud Farm, Seaton, Hornsea.  Pictures: James Hardisty (JH1008/64f)
Eric Varley at Stud Farm, Seaton, Hornsea. Pictures: James Hardisty (JH1008/64f)
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THREE MILES from Hornsea, ten miles from their nearest producer, and with the milk price having eroded much like Europe’s fastest receding coastline just down the road, this doesn’t sound like the hallmark to dairy farming and processing success, but Eric and Sue Varley are stoic in their approach to the current dilemma in the industry.

Eric came to Stud Farm near Seaton aged seven when his parents made the three-mile move from their previous farm in Bewholme. Dairy cows were added when he was 12 and he’s milked ever since. Today the 210-acre farm tenanted from Wassand Estate is home to a herd of 110 Holstein Friesians that may yet grow to 140 and an arable operation that includes wheat and barley.

Sue and Eric Varley, who run and own Chestnut Dairies at Stud Farm, Seaton, Hornsea.

Sue and Eric Varley, who run and own Chestnut Dairies at Stud Farm, Seaton, Hornsea.

Down the long and winding country lane that leads to their home is also Chestnut Dairies, the family’s processing business that is perhaps one of the UK’s most remote dairies. In a world where the smaller producer/processor has all but disappeared the Varleys occupy almost the equivalent position to that of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn. The difference here is that they aren’t showing any signs of being beaten. It is her family that provides Sue with the strength and will to carry on.

“Every member of our family – Eric, myself, our son Mathieu and daughters Danielle and Claire – give as much of their ability as they can. We work together as a team and we work together with the other dairy farmers who we collect from too.

“These are difficult times with supermarkets selling milk at silly prices and dairy farmers over-producing. It can be painful telling our dairy farmers why we can’t pay more for what they supply, when they provide over and above what is the norm and that they have to take a lower price because of it, but when I’m having to sell milk at ridiculous prices I explain that if we don’t survive then they won’t.

“I can honestly say we’re not doing what we do here for the money, but don’t ask me what we then really do it for! We just get on with it.”

Sue understands the problems producers are going through but also questions the logic of those who are increasing production.

“At the moment the country is awash with milk and that’s not helping anyone except the supermarkets. It is criminal that they’ve been allowed to reduce the price of milk the way they have, but why are dairy farmers producing more milk when they know what has happened to the market? We need production to be level throughout the year, not spiking at certain times and especially not when it can have such a detrimental effect.”

The East Riding and the plains of Holderness have never been massive milk producing areas and with several long time producers having left the industry, the Varleys are now the most easterly dairy farmers in Yorkshire. The closest producer they collect milk from is at North Frodingham and their 20-plus producers are as far afield as Scarborough and Easingwold.

When Dairy Farmers of Britain went bust, Chestnut Dairies came to the rescue of some but hauling milk across to the east coast and then hauling it to outlets throughout the north of England is costly. The family has invested in a fleet of trucks to deliver to many of Heron Foods’ 235 outlets.

“We first supplied Frank Dee Supermarkets when we started in 1982. Then we had a great relationship with Jacksons through the Oughtred family. When they sold to Sainsburys we had an approach from Heron Foods. They are an excellent family from around here who have grown their business from nothing to what it is today. We bought the trucks to ensure that we give them the best possible service.”

Eric runs the pasteuriser, acts as relief tanker driver with Mathieu and washes the dairy but the cows remain his top priority.

“I’m a farmer at heart and I enjoy the cows. We provide our own replacements and don’t buy anything in. I use nominated sires for AI through Genus and the traits I look for are a nice temperament, good milking and a nice conformation. I like to provide quality milk not water and the herd calves all year round to provide us with a more level profile.

“Dairy farming and milk processing is totally different to what it was years ago and all of us have to work hard for what we get. I remember looking at those who used to farm and manufacture their own products and they seemed to be the ones that made some money but it’s harder now than it was back then. The farm is probably making more than the dairy at the moment, that’s how tough it is.”

Eric has no plans to come out of dairy and Sue is committed to her role in trying to achieve the best possible price for her dairy farmer suppliers. They have recently started to supply smaller village shops too.

“Village shops seem to be having a resurgence again and that’s good news for us as those who buy from village shops are not looking to buy their milk at such a low price. We’re starting to pick up a bit of that trade.”

Sue, who hails from Beverley and moved out to Goxhill with her parents before first meeting and then marrying Eric in 1973, believes that despite the current pressures, unity among their dairy farmers is important.

“If we all stick together and everybody understands the situation properly we will all be here when the price rises once more. After all it was only last year that milk was over 30p per litre and dairy farmers were reinvesting.

“We try to have at least one if not two meetings with our fellow producers each year. Our last one was a lovely occasion at Bishop Burton College where we also collect.

“We’re doing our best. If it’s not good enough then producers should go somewhere else, but what I can tell everyone is that we try our hardest to get the best possible price.”