Taste Derbyshire’s Amanda Volley discovered, buying your groceries down on the farm makes for a deliciously different shopping experience and helps to boost the rural economy.
There is something very appealing about buying direct from the farm. On top of the feel-good-factor of buying fresh from the fields, there’s a chance of getting up close and personal with the producers.
In this case, a herd of 70 Friesian cows at Hooks Farm Dairy in Borrowash.
“Don’t worry, they are just curious,” reassures farmer Dan Smith (25), when one gets close enough to lick my camera lens. “They are quite docile unless they have calves to protect”
Hooks is one of a growing number of UK dairy farms selling ‘old fashioned’ milk (fresh, in glass bottles and creamy enough to pour on a pudding) from a state-of-the-art vending machine.
“The cows have already produced 350 litres of milk today,” says farmer Dan Smith (25), as he shows me round the ‘Cow Shed’ where customers can buy milk (plus local spuds and free-range eggs) and admire pin-ups of ‘Dusky Girl’ ‘Easter Molly’ and other stars from the herd.
“My dad John and I got up for milking at 6.30am and finished at 10.30 for a croissant and some coffee. I’d say the milk in the machine is about two hours old.”
According to a report by NFU Mutual (2018), more than 63 per cent of farmers have a side-business. Of these, nine out of ten feel this second income stream is vital in securing their farm’s future.
This was certainly the case at Hooks. Dan Smith says his family were forced to look beyond their traditional market (sending all their milk to a co-operative) when milk prices dipped to 13p per litre in 2005 (they are currently at 27p).
“We had to do something to safeguard the farm for future generations. My dad is a fourth-generation farmer who moved here in 1956. Farming isn’t just our livelihood – it’s a way of life,” he explains.
“We began researching ways to add more value to the milk and visited farms where they made dairy products like ice cream. We loved the convenience of a vending machine and people told us they’d be happy to pay £1 per litre (£1.80 for two) for milk fresh from our herd.”
The Smiths installed the milk vending machine in November 2018. “We were painting the cow shed into the night – that’s why some of the hand-painted letters are a bit wobbly,” laughs Dan.
“On the first day, a Friday, we sold nine litres. The second day we sold 40 and the milk ran out. On the Sunday we sold more than 100 litres and we had around 50 cars in the yard. We sold 50,000 litres of milk through the vending machine in our first year. We’re very grateful for all the support.”
Dan has been thrilled with the feed-back from the customers; “Everyone comments on the taste of the milk. Its reputation has spread by word-of-mouth alone. That’s the best compliment of all, our customers telling their friends to try it,” he says.
“The milk is rich and creamy because our herd is fed on grass from March until November or even December depending on the weather. That’s why it tastes so good.”
The Smiths are also happy for their customers to meet the cows including Dermott, the magnificent bull, who was responsible for a spike in the birth-rates last Christmas.
“We do everything for our animals – my dad jokes that they have better bedding than most humans. We have to make sure our milk is good enough to keep people coming back again and again,” Dan says.
“We even found one chap in the yard at midnight. He’d just been to the pub and said his missus would kill him if he didn’t take a bottle of our milk home.”
As for the future, Dan says it’s important to keep pushing forward; “We’ve got a lot of ideas including installing a hot drinks machine and maybe doing skimmed milk so we can use the cream to make something like soft scoop ice cream or milkshakes,” he says. I’m also keen to set-up a live video stream so our customers can see the cows being milked. It’s the least we can do to thank people for keeping us in business. I’d like to think there will always be a member of the Smith family involved in farming.”
Leaving Hooks Farm, I drive seven miles to Stanley Common to join the crowds flocking towards the impressive shop-cum-café at Oakfield Farm.
Forget all those preconceptions about muddy yards and chilly sheds; Oakfield Farm Shop is on a Grand Designs scale and the bespoke oak building is terribly smart both inside and out.
No wellies required.
“We come here every Tuesday for coffee and to shop, we love it,” explains Sue Rice, of Spondon, who is heading for the butchery counter for pork chops and lamb’s liver. “The food is great; the staff are so helpful and friendly. The meat looks delicious so you can imagine how good it tastes.”
He husband Geoff laughs; “If I wasn’t on a diet I could go mad here. All those homemade pies and the cheese. It’s just such different quality to what you’d find in a supermarket. It’s all top-notch.”
Andrew Wint (59), who runs the business with wife Karen (56), says farm shops are gaining in popularity as customers increasingly want fresh, quality produce on their door-step.
“The lamb on this counter was born on this farm” says Andrew. Our customers love the fact that the beef and lamb come from animals raised here. All of the cakes, sausage rolls, pies, quiches and even the faggots are made on-site.”
Andrew laughs when asked about his farming roots. “I was a milkman and my dad, a miner” he says. “But I’ve always loved farming. Even as a youngster growing up in Stanley Common, I’d help on farms at the weekends. I started work on a milk round at 14. I ended up buying the business when I was just 19. I’d just met Karen and didn’t dare tell her.”
Andrew’s foray into farming came in 1985 when he bought two cows; “One for us and one to sell to pay for it. People loved the meat so much, I started to get more and more orders,” he says.
“We ended up renting land to keep Herefords and sold meat by the pack for home delivery. Some of our land was at the back of Oakfield and, when I asked the owner if I could cut through his yard with some silage, he surprised me by asking if I was interested in the farm.”
For more than twenty years, Andrew juggled farming – opening an on-site butchers and farm shop in 2005 – with his milk rounds.
I packed up the rounds two years ago as my customer base was dwindling. Only three per cent of people get milk delivered to the door. It’s sad. The best thing I can say is I don’t miss the 3am starts,” he says. All those years selling to the public have been put to good use in the farm shop.”
Guided by the philosophy ‘shop local, enjoy local’, Andrew and his staff host a number of fun events each year including the popular Sausage and Cider Festival.
“I started making sausages in 2001 to raise money for farmers affected by foot and mouth,” Andrew recalls.
“We do around 19 flavours of sausage throughout the year including jalfrezi and mango, chocolate and chilli and pork with apple and banana. My daughter Manda requested some made with Smarties – they were nice but all the colour came off the sweets.”
Andrew also makes the cider; “My son-in-law Shaun is a tree surgeon and one year he bought me a big box of apples which we pressed to make 100 litres of cider. Around 25 litres were okay but the rest was really unpleasant,” he laughs.
“But we got more apples the next year and it started to get better to the point that – last year (2019) – my Taste of the Orchard bottled cider won gold at the Nottinghamshire Beer Festival.”
With this, Andrew takes me on a whistle-stop tour of the farm which takes in his daughter Manda’s riding school and a visit to his prized Herefords in their winter stall. In spite of the nearby farm shop being full to the rafters – every one of the 20 spaces in the car park is full – all you can hear is the sound of contented cows munching on silage.
“They’re always happy to come in for winter,” Andrew says. When it’s cold and wet outside, it’s the best place to be.”
Whether he is talking about the cow shed, or the cosy farm shop I am not sure. But he is right on both counts.
Hooks Farm Dairy is on Draycott Road, Borrowash. The milk vending machine is open daily from 7.30am-9pm.
Oakfield Farm Shop, Belper Road, Stanley Common, Ilkeston.Open week days from 10am-4pm and weekends 9am-4pm. For details visit the website www.oakfieldfarm.co.uk
Farm fresh here’s where to find the finest local produce
Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop, Pilsley, Bakewell.
One of the oldest farm shops in Britain, this award-winning business was set up by the 11th Duchess of Devonshire in 1977. It’s the place to get home produced meat – including pheasants from the estate – and a host of other artisan goodies including 104 types of cheese.
Betty’s Farm Shop, The Castle Way, Willington.
The seeds of the business were sewn when Emma Ruff started selling the farm’s free-range eggs from a trestle table on Saturdays. In addition to eggs, the shop stocks a host of quality items including cheese, breads and meat from the in-store butchers.
Scaddows Farm Shop and PYO, Scaddows Lane, Ticknall.
Opens in June and closes in October after all the pumpkins in the field have been picked. This is a family farm run by John and Ann Webster and offers the opportunity to pick-your-own strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and blackcurrants.
Shottle Farm Brewery and The Bull Shed, Handley Farm, Wilderbrook Lane, Shottle, Belper.
The Bull Shed a country restaurant is set within a 60-acre farm and the menu features home-grown produce plus cheese made on-site and real ales from the farm-based brewery. The popular ‘Shottle Cock’ brew even contains a slug of next-door’s honey. Because it is a working farm, you must ring ahead for reservations.
Watergo Farm, Staker Lane, Mickleover, Derby.
If you want to know how to get free-range eggs out of a vending machine without any breakages, you should visit Watergo Farm. There’s also a chilled vending machine which stocks milk, butter, cheese, chutneys, homemade dishes and brownies.
Tori and Ben’s Farm Shop, Kings Newton Lane, Kings Newton, Melbourne.
Tori and Ben Stanley’s farm shop has just been included on the Sunday Telegraph’s list of the ’20 Best Farm Shops in Britain’. The shop serves dry aged beef from the farm’s Longhorn cattle, home reared grass-fed lamb and ‘everything you may need to accompany these culinary delights’ – there’s even a giant sandpit for the kids.