Winners follow-up: The Kerry Family – 2018 Family Farming Business of the Year
The Kerr family has faced its own challenges, but together it has worked to overcome them and introduced new ideas, which have placed the dairy at the heart of the community and beyond.
Faced with a continually fluctuating dairy market and crippling milk prices, the Kerrs agreed to innovate to secure the future of their farm business.
After looking at what the farm business could do to widen its income pool, William and Alison Kerr were spurred on to change their milk contract and embark on a new diversification which enabled the family to turn their business around after facing serious economic downturn.
Dairy farming remains the heart of the Ayrshire-based business thanks to the security of a new milk contract in June 2016 with Yew Tree Dairies, Skelmersdale, that saw their milk price begin to steadily increase. The contract also offered suppliers the option of fixed rate contracts for a percentage of their milk production, a move which the family welcomed to further cushion the fluctuations of a very unpredictable commodity market.
The following February, the family then took a leap of faith to open The Coo Shed, a 70-seat coffee shop, followed in June 2018 by The Milk Hoose, a milk vending machine which allows customers to purchase the Kerrs’ milk directly from the farm after it has been pasteurised.
This is a family with dairy farming at its heart, passionate about promoting their product in its rawest form.
William says: “We are promoting pure milk, with a little bit of cream on top and people love it.
“For some, it brings back childhood memories with glass bottles and no plastic cartons. The next generation is getting passionate about reducing plastic pollution and what we are doing supports that.”
Both diversifications are now run alongside the 220-head Holstein Friesian herd and a plant nursery, which was established 14 years ago after Alison left her job in banking.
The involvement of the whole family is clear and each family member brings their individual strengths to varying parts of the business.
Alison is in charge of the day-to-day running of The Coo Shed and nursery and deals with paperwork for the farm.
William is on-farm working alongside son David, 20, who left school and went to study agriculture at Scotland’s Rural College, before returning full-time and managing the dairy herd and field work.
Daughter Joanne, 16, also helps Alison on-farm when she is not at school and also starred in their instruction video for the vending machine.
South Corton Farm runs at 210 hectares (520 acres) in total, 109ha (270 acres) of which are owned, alongside an additional 101ha (250 acres) of rented ground. The 220-head herd is milked twice-a-day in a 20:20 parlour, with male calves sold at two to four weeks old for the veal market. Heifers are served to an Aberdeen-Angus bull and cows to a Holstein bull or AI’d.
Cows are turned out for summer and fed predominantly on the surrounding grassland before being brought inside when the West Scotland climate becomes a lot more challenging.
But it was in 2015 when the dairy crisis took a real grip on the family and they found themselves receiving less than 10ppl, a time which Alison describes as desperate.
She says: “It was very challenging, but in June 2016 we got a new milk contract with Yew Tree Dairies and saw our milk price steadily increase.”
It was the downturn which inspired the family to open up a coffee shop next to the seasonal plant nursery and go on to supply pasteurised milk to their
local community via The Milk Hoose.
She says: “We decided to complete the circle and felt it would be great if customers could actually buy our milk.
“We arranged with a local farmer to pasteurise our milk and we purchased a vending machine from a company in the Czech Republic.
“Customers can now visit to buy a glass bottle and pay for milk using coin or contactless payment. By having these additional businesses under our belt, we can be more in control of our income in these variable milk markets.This way, we can dictate prices we charge rather than being dictated to.” #
While still a relatively young business, diversifications are a constant learning curve for the family, who are keen to support other local farmers through
William says: “As producers of food ourselves, we are passionate about supporting other food producers and we try whenever possible to use local suppliers in our coffee shop.”
The biggest challenge they continue to face is the unpredictable milk price.
He says: “Now we are with Yew Tree Dairies, we have access to fixed rate contracts, which gives us more stability and security with our route to market.”
To further secure their grasp, the family is now pasteurising its own milk, which has allowed them a greater independence.
Alison says: “We have started selling about 150 litres/day and, hopefully, this will steadily rise as our marketing kicks in.
“We produce 5,000 litres/day, so we still have a fear of prices falling. However, the changes we have put in place should cushion any large drops.
“As far as the coffee shop goes, I suppose it would take a competitor to open up nearby to take our business, so the way we are tackling that is just keeping our standards high and staying good at what we do.
“We are always looking for new ideas and are not frightened to give them a try. The Coo Shed is known for being a very quirky place, which is why it is different from other companies doing similar things.”
When asked what their proudest achievement is as a farming family, William and Alison do not take the opportunity they have to farm the area for granted and credit teamwork as their fundamental approach to running the business.
William says: “We have many proud achievements as a farming family, but we recently unearthed old papers from 1925, when James Kerr took on the tenancy of South Corton.
“His son then got the chance to buy the farm in the 1960s. Over the years, the Kerr family has purchased land and farms in the area, which have since been divided up as families grow.”
In 1995, William and his brother James came into partnership with their parents when they were in their 20s and, between them, built up enoughstock to go out and purchase another farm for James in 2000.
Alison says: “It is quite an achievement having been through difficult times, due to adverse weather, poor prices and poor margins.
“In current times, our proudest achievement as a family is surviving the dairy crisis, both mentally and financially, and coming out the other end wiser, stronger and smarter.
“We pulled our belt in tight and could not have been any more efficient throughout an average price of 14ppl for a whole year with cost of production in the region of 22ppl.
“Now it is an absolute joy and delight to see our loyal customers coming to our family farm regularly to buy our fresh milk.”
Such has been the family’s determination, improved productivity and drive to constantly better their dairy farm, their efforts were rewarded when they were named the 2018 Family Farming Business of the Year at the British Farming Awards.
Alison says: “We believe families are the backbone of the industry and we see our own children growing up and showing interest in what we do and wanting to learn.
“It was amazing to have won the award and we all share enthusiasm and passion and look forward to building it with them for the future.”