Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Dairy diversification results in award winning ice cream

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

A decade of hard-work is paying off for the Brown family, who have transformed their dairy enterprise. Simon Wragg reports.

Adapting to exceed the needs of a growing business has been a key lesson for award-winning artisan ice cream and farm attraction ‘Bluebells’ – run by the Brown family at Brunswood Farm, Spondon, near Derby.

Started in 2008 at the time of low milk prices, the 110ha (275-acre) tenanted farm – part of the Locko Estate  – continues to be run by Rosemary and Geoff Brown, and their son Oliver, with a current 85-cow dairy herd at its heart.

Mrs Brown explains: “We had the choice back in 2008 of investing around £250,000 in new facilities and a robotic milker for 65 cows or diversifying.”

With the aid of grant funding the family ventured into producing artisan ice cream and opened their farm gate to members of the public. “Fortunately, aside from the land we tenant here we own 102 acres at Ockbrook which acted as equity for initial borrowings,” she explains.

A decade of hard graft and investment has paid dividends. Bluebells – a limited company with Geoff and Rosemary as directors and Oliver a shareholder – has transformed the farm’s fortune.

New figures show 105,000 people visited the farm attraction and a further 25,000 to the on-site café in the year to May 2018. Nine Great Taste Awards have been won alongside attracting 175 trade buyers for Bluebells’ ice cream which is stocked in several National Trust properties, Chatsworth Farm Shop and multiple retailer Morrisons.

Broad vision

“People often talk about diversification, but it is damned hard work,” reflects Mrs Brown – a former veterinary practice manager. “I think the main lesson we’ve learnt – and it sounds a little harsh – is as the business develops you out-grow some of those who start with you.”

That, she suggests, applies equally to staff and support businesses including advisors, accountants, banks, consultants, input suppliers and solicitors. “As farmers, we tend to support local businesses [but] sometimes you have to look further afield.”

Her earlier career has helped shape a formal approach and structure to the business which now has a turnover exceeding £1m/annum. For example, a human resources firm is used to select candidates for interview by the family for key posts such as department heads.

“In the case of appointing a finance manager, Oliver and I short-listed three people from the original candidates interviewed. They had to fit the business in terms of experience and attitude – it’s a farm so anything can happen.

Farm staff

“These then met our accountants and were set tasks on allocating expenses to different cost centres to help finalise our decision.”

To allow Mrs Brown and Oliver to oversee Bluebells, the company has appointed other managers to cover production, catering and the farm attraction. Currently, 24 staff are employed full-time. This rises to 60 with part-time and seasonal staff at peak times.

“There’s now more emphasis for departments to contribute to weekly reporting – particularly for finance – looking at turnover, expenses (including staff costs) and the impact on margins. You cannot afford to get to the end of a financial year and find you’ve made a loss.”

More time is given to getting quotes for major costs such as insurances, she explains. At recent review a new broker reduced Bluebells’ premium by £5000/annum – an action promptly matched by the existing provider.

“You have to question why it hadn’t thought to reduce this particularly in the early days when it was such a burden?”

Growing the business

The same approach has been taken with utility companies. A recent upgrade from a 120kW supply to 240kW led to an investment of circa £20,000 for works. “But you need to look at contracts in detail to see what you’re actually paying for.”

There’s also been an emotional cost to growing the business, she expands. With visitor numbers climbing cost for staff, animal care and insurance led to a daily charge for visitors to the farm attraction being introduced (£4.50/head peak times/£3.50 off peak).

“It was tried in 2011 and we had a real backlash through social media,” she explains. “This time we’ve invested to improving facilities in the play barn and farm attraction so visitors see where it’s going.

Oliver’s wife, Ella, is key to organising events to keep footfall up in off-peak periods. Last year Halloween events brought 1500 visitors/day over 10 days to explore the farm’s maize trail and PYO pumpkin area. Other events include Unicorn festivals, Knight schools and a popular Santa’s grotto.

Surplus milk is currently sold to Arla. But in future the dairy herd will be down-sized to solely meet the needs of the artisan ice-cream enterprise, explains Mr Brown who continues to focus on the day-to-day farm management.

Succession planning is also being put into place as Oliver has a guaranteed tenancy until he’s 65, he adds. “The important thing is there’s a future,” says Mr Brown.

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