The battered dairy sector is rediscovering its bottle and fighting back, writes Sandra Dick

The humble whitewashed Alloway cottage where the ploughman poet Robert Burns was born lies just over a mile away from South Corton Farm.

The busy A77 cuts across Ayrshire landscape once laboriously ploughed by hand, cars rumble by and the farm’s 220-head of Holstein Friesian cows graze on acres of lush green grass.

It may seem a fairly ordinary image of dairy farming. Yet here are signs of what could be the green shoots of recovery for a sector which until recently was deep in crisis.

Every day cars turn off the busy bypass road and head towards the farm’s café, The Coo Shed. In a wooden hut dubbed ‘The Milk Hoose’, a constant stream of newly rinsed milk bottles emerge from visitors’ baskets, bags and bottle carriers, to be filled with creamy, cool and farm-fresh milk straight from a vending machine.

“It has been an eye-opener,” says Alison Kerr, who runs South Corton Farm with husband Willy and their children David and Joanne.

“We regularly see people queuing for their milk. They are making the journey to come here for milk. They are using reusable glass bottles and they are enjoying milk which tastes completely different from what they are buying in the supermarket.

“But, to be honest, we really had no idea that it would be so successful.”

The 'Milkbot' vending machine was launched last year. What may have started as something of a novelty addition to their thriving farm café, is now attracting hordes of visitors, many arriving specifically to try the kind of rich, full fat, creamy milk their grandparents took for granted.

Usually, they return time and again for refills.

Part of its attraction, says Alison, is the milk’s ‘old fashioned’ taste. The other is the chance to rewind time to when milk came in bottles, not plastic.

“It’s non-homogenised pasteurised milk, so the cream settles on the top and it tastes so much better than the milk they are used to,” she explains. “People arrive with bottle carriers for four or six bottles, they are happily paying £1.50 a litre which is more than they’d pay in the supermarkets.

“That has been the other surprising element. The dairy industry is being hammered on price but the general public doesn’t really notice if they are paying a bit more for their milk.”

The Ayrshire farm is not the only one to have embraced a return to ‘grassroots’ of milk supply. The Kerrs' idea was sparked by Forest Farm in Aberdeen, an organic farm and dairy which also sells its fresh milk to glass bottle-carrying customers who, if they time it right, can also watch the cows being milked.

While at Mossgiel Organic Farm, Mauchline – on land which was once farmed by Burns himself – is what’s claimed to be the UK’s first plastic-free organic dairy. The move to introduce glass-bottled milk sold directly to restaurants, speciality coffee shops and delis and delivered to doorsteps was inspired by desperately low milk prices which left third-generation farmer Bryce Cunningham losing £10,000 a month.

The response has been positive. Production is rising – from 9000 litres a week to 15,000 litres – and the list of customers is growing.

Away from the farm, bottled milk, either delivered to homes or picked up in the supermarket, is also on the rise. Graham’s, Scotland’s largest independent milk producer, recently announced plans to offer doorstep deliveries, while householders in some areas of Edinburgh have the choice of at least three milk delivery businesses on their doorsteps.

Rising demand for glass-bottled milk and signs that customers are happy to pay a price that reflects the effort required to produce it, is a pleasant twist for a sector which, thrashed by over-supply and a drop in demand, saw an estimated one in five UK dairy farms going out of business in 2016.

According to Stuart Martin, manager of the Scottish Dairy Hub, dairy production in Scotland remains in the grip of significant change.

“We have 888 dairy herds, which is the least amount of herds there has ever been. The average herd size is 202 – that’s the most it’s ever been.

“The breakeven point for dairy farmers average in the UK is about 28p per litre. Currently in Scotland, the majority are getting less than that,” he says. “It’s still a very difficult time.”

Last month a survey of Scottish dairy farmers suggested the dairy industry was tottering on a “knife-edge”, with producers swinging between low optimism in the short term, yet hopeful of better days further ahead.

The research, launched at an AgriScot seminar, showed 60% of dairy farmers are struggling to feel confident about the dairy industry, with 30% saying they have “no confidence” to invest in their businesses in the short term.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s milk surplus is said to be on track to rise to more than 200m litres in 2019/20, partly due to a rise in production and partly down to a loss of processing plants such as First Milk’s Arran and Muller’s Aberdeen and East Kilbride sites. Last month First Milk also announced the end of its Campbeltown Creamery, home for almost a century to award-winning Mull of Kintyre cheese.

Optimism, says Martin, comes from an anticipated rise in global demand for milk products such as baby milk powders, cheese, butter and protein, particularly from China, Japan and Africa. The downside, however, is a lack of Scottish-based processing plants which might take full advantage of emerging markets.

While in the background is concern over the rise in the vegan and dairy-free lifestyle. Despite the environmental impact of oat, almond and coconut drinks, they are said to have risen 10% over the past two years while the average person’s milk consumption in the UK has fallen 50% since the 1950s.

That has sparked claims that the dairy sector is rapidly losing a marketing war and failed to adequately argue its case.

“Dairy lacks branding and lacks some real innovative products,” concedes Martin. “Supermarkets are huge buildings that sell thousands of litres of milk every day, but unlike other products, customers are buying something that doesn’t have a ‘brand’.

“Because of that the consumer, to an extent, devalues it.”

Meanwhile, in the dairy heartland of Dumfries and Galloway, David McMiken, an automotive engineering graduate, is the third generation to work the green fields of Ernespie Farm since 1947.

A new dairy shed and farm visitor centre launched at the height of the price slump now employs 29 full time and part-time staff and has his wife Rebecca at its helm.

Earlier this month his efforts to help consumers re-engage with milk production were rewarded when Ernespie Farm was named Scottish Dairy Farm of the Year.

“There have been tough times for the whole industry and we have had to ride the storm,” he says. “But the balance is starting to come back.

“A lot of what’s said about dairy is not strictly true,” he adds, pointing to moves to create a carbon zero sector by 2050. “The dairy sector has a good story to tell but we’re not getting the chance.

“There’s a challenge from the vegan movement which we ignore at our peril. However, load by load milk has a better carbon footprint than alternatives,” he says.

Meanwhile, at the Milk Hoose, queues for milk that’s travelled just a few yards from cow to bottle have encouraged the Kerrs to consider their next step.

“We are now actively looking for another couple of sites for vending machines – ideally outside supermarkets,” says Alison.

“It’s like swapping single use plastic bags for reusable ones – it’s all about changing habits.”