Our 2022 Young Farmer of the Year has used her business acumen to diversify the family dairy farm and close the gap between the producer and the consumer.
Returning to her family’s dairy farm, following work in a veterinary practice, Gemma Smale-Rowland saw that there was a disconnect between farmers and food producers and the consumers who purchased the products. Researching a way to address this, as well as improve efficiency and margins, Gemma opted for a vending machine-style milk dispenser.
“We set up the Cornish Moo vending machine at the start of 2019,” she said. “We were one of the first in the country to do so. All of the equipment had to be imported and there were long days trying to understand where we stood in regards to the Food Standards Agency.”
Alongside the vending machine itself, there was investment in a batch pasteuriser and bottling system. Gemma notes that it was a huge investment for the farm – which covers some 200 acres outside of Launceston, Cornwall, and milks 140 cows from a 300-head pedigree Holstein closed herd.
“It was huge for us, but then everything is a risk,” she said. “At the end of the day, farming is there to produce food, but it also must make money. If we weren’t sure about what we were doing, then we would have looked at other solutions to maximise the profitability of the farm.”
The enterprise found success quickly. Gemma recognised the value in branding and put a lot of effort into the development of this side of the business, focusing on the lack of additives or preservatives and the primarily grass-based diet that the cattle are on.
To spread the word, Gemma utilised social media and entered the brand into several awards.
At the Taste of the West Awards, Cornish Moo took the Best Dairy and Best Brand trophies and it also has the notable achievement of being the only fresh milk product to garner three stars in the Best Taste Awards.
“I saw Cornish Moo as an opportunity to promote conversations with the general public,” she said. “Sensible conversations, that weren’t been conducted over social media. Farmers are responsible for the countryside that so many people enjoy, but we don’t have the opportunity, or make the opportunity, to speak to the public and give factual, sensible answers to questions they have.”
A key benefit of the Cornish Moo enterprise was the reduction in food miles for a percentage of the milk produced – it’s just 50 yards from the herringbone milking parlour to the vending machine. The rest of the milk is produced on contract to the Davidstow Creamery.
The farm has also implemented systems to minimise its environmental impact. In 2008, solar panels were installed on farm buildings, with plans to fit more in the future, and there have been efforts to utilise marginal ground for Countryside Stewardship agreements, including establishing bird seed mixes on field edges and putting some of the steeper hills into environmental schemes.
“We’re taking everything in consideration,” Gemma explained. “No one should work as hard as we do to earn nothing, and the schemes help us to make the farm more profitable.” While the majority of the farm is down as grass, maize and wholecrop wheat makes up the rest of the rotation, with everything grown on the farm put back into the dairy herd. A combination of herbal leys and improved utilisation of the slurry (spread by a local contractor) has boosted soil health.
More recently, we’ve trialled under sowing our maize crops with grass, which has helped to slow soil erosion,” she said. “This means we can keep that nutrient-rich topsoil for future crops.”
A tough industry to crack
As the National Arable & Grassland Awards 2022 Young Farmer of the Year, it only seemed right to ask Gemma how difficult it can be for young people to break into the industry. Working with both the NFU and AHDB, Gemma has seen first-hand the challenges across the industry, and had a hand in providing guidance to move agriculture forward.
“My advice would be for young people to follow that passion,” she said. “It can seem impossible but there are organisations out there that can help.”
She advocated for newcomers, whether from a farming background or not, to get as much as experience as possible, as well as paying attention to the NFU Tenant Farmers Forum.
“The Duchy of Cornwall has always been brilliant in regards to helping young people get their foot on the ladder in the agriculture,” she added. “But there could be opportunities closer to home. As legislation changes, there may be chances to set up share farming agreements with local businesses.”
Read about the 2023 NAGA winners, including this year’s Young Farmer of the Year Award winner here.
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