Farmer’s milk delivery service bids to be the UK’s greenest

Are you a Blossom or a Buttercup? A Petal or a Primrose?

There’s a high chance that those living in the South Hams district of South Devon will know exactly what I’m talking about, because the answer sits right on their doorstep.

Completed by Honeysuckle and Willow, these are the milk rounds carried out by How Now Dairy from its base at Ladywell Farm, near Ugborough, delivering six days a week to more than 1,000 customers spread from Modbury and up to South Brent, across to Totnes and down to Kingsbridge.

Covering a 10-mile radius powered by electric vans, it’s this desire to care for the environment – together with a thirst for delicious and sustainable organic milk – which has seen this still relatively young company more than triple its orders since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Oliver Lee enjoys a cuddle with Ayrshire cow Bloom
Oliver Lee enjoys a cuddle with Ayrshire cow Bloom
(Image: DC Media)

“In the first week of lockdown we did 25 new deliveries on top of the 275 we already had,” says Oliver Lee, who founded How Now Dairy on 40 acres of his late grandfather Ted Mitchell’s land in 2017. “The week after, we went from 300 to 500, then added another 100 the following week, with a further 100 in the two weeks after that. It went from 10 new customers a month to 10 a week, 10 a day and even 10 an hour.

“We were looking to grow. During the year before we’d made all our mistakes, found the problems, broken everything and learnt how to fix it, then along came the biggest sales driver – a tiny little virus. Who knew that’s all we needed, and we’ve been able to ride that roller coaster. It has brought us to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Conscious of the stay-at-home guidance, Oliver, 27, was quick to respond by building ties with other ethically-minded local producers to offer a whole range of weekly essentials, such as apple and orange juice from Heron Valley, organic free range eggs from Orchard Organics Farm and mature cheddar cheese from Quicke’s Traditional.

He adds: “You would have thought that if we could gain customers that quickly we could lose them that quickly, but we haven’t. From that 300 we got in a very short space of time, we probably only lost 20 or 30. And we’ve continued to grow afterwards. We’ve had a lot of customers say that while the end of the pandemic is in sight, they’re staying with us.”

Guided by the ethos of ‘leaving the land better than we found it’, How Now Dairy’s land, cows and milk are 100% organic, farmed to high animal welfare and environmental standards certified by the Soil Association.

Milk produced by the farm’s small herd of 50 cows – consisting mostly of Ayrshires but also Friesian, Guernsey and Jersey breeding – is pasteurised and gently cooled before being delivered to doorsteps in one- or two-litre pouches. Unhomogenised, so the cream is left as nature intended, both How Now Dairy’s whole and semi-skimmed milk bear the prestigious Taste of the West logo, having been judged worthy of gold awards in 2019.

A member of the milking herd at How Now Dairy relaxing and enjoying the spring sunshine
A member of the milking herd at How Now Dairy relaxing and enjoying the spring sunshine
(Image: DC Media)

Oliver, joined in the business by three full-time and five part-time employees, says: “We look after our milk. We heat it up when it needs to be, then we cool it right back down. Nothing’s being worked too hard. The majority of the milk that is being processed and delivered to doorsteps today was still grass yesterday, so you can’t get much fresher than that.”

Unlike many larger farms, the How Now Dairy cows are on a first-name basis with not only Oliver but customers, too. While some share their names with the delivery rounds, others such as Bloom, Doris, Lightning’s Fury and Minstrel feature regularly on the company’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages.

“It’s lovely having a small herd because you know them all individually,” says Oliver, who was not born directly into farming but first fell in love with the Ayrshire breed when working with well-regarded dairy man Russell Ashford at Bowden Farm, near Buckfastleigh. “I don’t know my cows by number, I know them by name.”

But what makes How Now Dairy really stand out from the crowd is its ‘carbon negative’ status. Believed to be the first and only dairy in the country to achieve such a feat, this means that across all of its products and operations, the farm is storing more carbon than it releases each year. To help illustrate this, Oliver explains how for every litre of milk they deliver, 2.1kg of carbon is stored – equivalent to 5.75 bathtubs worth of CO2 that would otherwise be in the atmosphere.

Quietly working with its soils, grasses and cows over the past year, data from the Farm Carbon Toolkit and soil samples are used to work out the farm’s overall carbon footprint. Oliver says: “We are so proud of the results. We farm the soil and the cows are just a part of it.

“It’s a very slow process and it’s been harder than first thought. But we’ve only had three years of proper farming, so we’re still cold turkey and haven’t quite got that biological engine working yet. Organic matters in the soil are up to eight per cent but I want them at 10% or 12%, so we’ve got loads of capacity. Once we start to see that then we can store more carbon and water. We’re already carbon negative and we’ve got so much more to do.”

To cow, to box, to field. How Now Dairy is believed to be the first dairy in the country to use 100% compostable milk packaging
To cow, to box, to field. How Now Dairy is believed to be the first dairy in the country to use 100% compostable milk packaging
(Image: DC Media)

One of the biggest ways in which How Now Dairy is storing carbon is by grazing rich herbal ley pastures. Containing a diverse mix of plant species beneficial for livestock health and soil fertility, there’s also plenty of positive work happening below ground, as Oliver explains: “A normal ryegrass ley’s roots are only two to three inches deep, but the roots of chicory, plantain and clover are going down a foot. Around 70% of the sugar a plant produces is released back into the soil to feed the microorganisms around it, so suddenly you’re not working with a matter of inches but a foot – four times the amount of soil that the roots have got contact with. That’s bringing the water up and pushing air and food down, therefore storing carbon.”

As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat’, and this can certainly be applied here, with the herbal leys grazed by the cows contributing to the flavour of the milk. “It changes through the seasons and the customer can taste that,” Oliver adds. “Sometimes there will be more cream in the milk and at other times of the year there will be less.”

In another industry first for How Now Dairy, the journey to carbon negativity is being aided by the use of 100% compostable milk packaging. Made up of a non-GM corn starch biofilm and non-toxic cardboard, all returned pouches and boxes will within just three months be fully composted and mixed with natural fertiliser produced by the cows to spread back onto the fields – feeding the life of the soils and, effectively, turning the packaging into grass and milk in one constantly revolving natural cycle.

“We reckon we’ve got the greenest milk out there,” Oliver says. “Through our understanding, our new biofilm releases less C02 in its production than glass. It is also 80% lighter, so that’s a huge saving on transport. And glass does not lock carbon in the soil.

“We’ve only fairly recently [March 2021] started picking up the packaging from our customers. It was launched just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, but we didn’t want to be handling it in case of spreading the virus. Going to so many homes, we had to be really conscious of that.”

He adds: “Our customers certainly buy into it. Our environmental credentials are one of the main reasons that they do choose us for their milk. They’re not just drinking the milk, it’s the view that they see, the grass, the soil, the cows, the whole process.”

How Now Dairy's whole and semi-skimmed milk products in their 100% compostable packaging
How Now Dairy’s whole and semi-skimmed milk products in their 100% compostable packaging
(Image: DC Media)

Setting his sights on the future, Oliver has ambitious plans for How Now Dairy to expand beyond the Ladywell Farm gate. Currently in the process of applying for grants, the intention is to franchise the evidently successful concept out to other like-minded farms in the region, with newly-installed micro automated dairies serving their local communities.

“We can offer the same financial stability as a 300-head herd but with only 50 cows,” he says. “It’s that enjoyment of being able to focus on your best cows and really take pleasure in farming, as well as your customers. We don’t want to be a big farm. Here I know exactly where our milk goes, down to the individual families and homes.

“I’ve been a customer longer than I’ve been a farmer, so when coming up with the idea for How Now Dairy I could see the massive disconnect between farmers and their customers. We’re [farmers] producing this incredible, high quality product, only for it to be sent to the supermarket where nobody knows where it has come from. You wave the milk tanker goodbye and that’s the end of the story. I could also taste the huge difference between raw milk and supermarket milk.”

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Oliver’s blueprint for expansion is to launch two new How Now dairies by the end of this year, with a further three in 2022. “We’d love to put a dairy in Exeter, then every 10 or 20 miles put in another one, with each delivering in a 10-mile radius. If we can pull our fingers out, then we’d like to start thinking about putting a new dairy in by the autumn. We’re proving that the concept works and getting the customers, so it’s just replicating that. Copy and paste.”

But this hard-working entrepreneur will be taking some time off from the farm in September to tie the knot with his fiancée Harriet Ball, who works as a physiotherapist at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.

Oliver concludes: “Farming was an itch to scratch, that’s the only way to describe it. I had to at least try it, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s such a multi-faceted business. I can be calving a cow in the morning, in a business meeting in the afternoon and delivering milk in the evening.

That's the spot! Oliver Lee giving Ayrshire cow Minstrel a back scratch
That’s the spot! Oliver Lee giving Ayrshire cow Minstrel a back scratch
(Image: DC Media)

“And personally, I really want to look after the environment. Even just my own farm, I want it to look glorious. We’ve got a white-throated warbler nesting in one of our hedges. It’s a lovely bird to see, so I want to protect it and hear it cuckoo again.”

With his grandfather no doubt proudly watching from afar, Ladywell Farm is in the safest of hands.

For further details of How Now Dairy and its milk rounds, visit the website www.hownowdairy.co.uk

Devon Live – Devon News