Stephensons - the UK’s first free range milk distribution business

Chris and Steph Stephenson

Chris and Steph Stephenson - Credit: Archant

A couple from Morecambe set up the UK’s first free range milk business and it might just save the dairy industry. Roger Borrell reports.

Stephensons Dairy Free Range Milk

Stephensons Dairy Free Range Milk - Credit: Archant

Provenance and traceability are the buzzwords you’ll hear wherever foodies gather to chew over the latest culinary fads. But even the most slavish followers of food fashion would be surprised by the offer from Steph and Chris Stephenson.

‘Yes, if a customer would like to meet the cows that produce the milk they are buying, that can be arranged,’ says Chris. ‘We can even tell you their names!’

This engaging, enthusiastic couple have a business plan that makes you do a double take – they sell free range milk. But isn’t all milk free range?

‘Definitely not,’ says Steph. ‘A lot of it comes from cows that are intensively farmed and that means they are kept indoors all year.’

Chris adds that the paltry sums paid for milk have produced a ‘race for the bottom’ driving farmers to cut costs and boost volumes, leaving many with little choice but to go down the intensive route.

Of course, there are farms where the cows see natural light and graze in pastures but, in most cases, when the tanker does its rounds whatever its origin, all the milk gets mixed together.

Stephensons Dairy Free Range Milk

Stephensons Dairy Free Range Milk - Credit: Archant

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Steph says: ‘People want to know where their food comes from and milk is no different. We thought there must be another way – a way to supply a product that has integrity.’

After talking it through with a friend, farmer Eddie Newsham who runs an outdoor dairy herd at Galgate, the couple spent many months hammering out partnerships with outdoor farmers to set up what they believe is the UK’s first free range milk distribution business, based in Morecambe.

The integrity of the product is far-reaching – the processor and bottler has separate pipelines so the free range milk remains unadulterated.

Everyone knows dairy farmers face a monumental fight for survival with milk sold by many supermarkets – Booths is an honourable exception – more cheaply than bottled water. Chris and Steph have, in their small way, set the ball rolling in the opposite direction and momentum is building. The goal is for farmers to receive 6p more per litre than the going rate and that can make a big difference to a farm’s finances.

‘People laughed at us – no one believed in the idea. They thought we were bonkers,’ says Chris, who spent many years as a milkman in Caton as well as working with some of the big players in milk processing.

Suddenly, they are being taken seriously. Stephenson’s Dairy is distributing 30,000 litres of free range pasteurised milk a week throughout the region and they believe their initial estimate of a peak of 60,000 litres could be wildly wrong. ‘I think 250,000 litres is possible,’ says Chris.

Stephensons Dairy

Stephensons Dairy - Credit: Archant

Word is spreading at home and abroad and more free range suppliers are setting up. When a similar operation takes off on the other side of the Pennines, Chris and Steph will be adding new Lancashire dairy farmers to their suppliers. They already have a waiting list.

The vast majority of customers are in the Morecambe and Lancaster area, with milk from Stephenson’s appearing on 3,500 doorsteps. But it also goes further afield – as far south as St Helens, north to Penrith and there are trendy eating establishments and coffee houses in Manchester’s Northern Quarter who can’t get enough of it.

So far, they supply around 100 retail outlets plus hotels, schools and Lancaster University as well as the Michelin-starred L’Enclume at Cartmel. Coffee baristas are particularly keen on it and Chris says Ian Steel, of J Atkinson & Co, the famous Lancaster coffee roasting business, has ‘totally embraced’ the product. Ian says: ‘Chris came to see me because he had heard what we were doing for coffee farmers abroad to provide added value and he asked what we were doing for local farmers. We saw his point and decided to give it a go.’

Ian adds that they put the milk through rigorous tests and it not only matched the established leading brands when it came to milk used for coffee – it actually tasted better.

Chris says: ‘Baristas tell us it has just the right levels of sweetness and creaminess, and the foam created holds the bubbles perfectly. We’ve gone from doorstep deliveries to trendy establishments.’

Chris stresses that research is still being carried out on free range milk but it is clear he and Steph believe outdoor grazing produces milk that is a healthier option.

The couple, who live in Morecambe and have two grown up children, have pitched their milk between the standard product and organic with it selling at around £1.35-£1.45 for two litres.

Farmers signing up must agree to graze their cattle outdoors for at least 180 days a year and abide by an agreed set of standards covering a range of issues, including the use of antibiotics.

‘It has been hard,’ says Steph. ‘We had to extend our overdraft. But we have budgeted properly and we got a marketing team to advise us.’ Chris adds: ‘I can’t pretend we wouldn’t like a big backer but we are very happy with the way it is going. We are seeing consistent growth.’

Their success has brought awards as well as recognition from Theo Paphitis through his Small Business Sunday project.

‘We would like to think there is light at the end of the tunnel for dairy farmers,’ says Steph. ‘We don’t want to take over the world but we do want to make a difference.

‘We didn’t do this because it was a great business idea. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It matches our ethos and values.’

Giving back

Chris and Steph believe in giving back to the community. As Chris says: ‘People can be sure that the money they pay us goes back into the local area.’

It also means employment with six people taken on by a business with a strong desire to provide training and job progression.

Steph and Chris are keen supporters of the Scout movement and help with local homeless charities, providing the milk for youngsters from Chernobyl and Belarus who come to Lancashire each year to stay with local families.

It’s a promise

The company’s labels contain the phrase ‘Our Pasture Promise.’ This has been devised by The Free Range Dairy Network, a Community Interest Company working on behalf of the dairy industry to promote the benefits of pasture-based milk production on British farms. The ‘Our Pasture Promise’ label is the only one that provides an assurance that cows are grazed in fields for a minimum of six months of the year with a set of standards for free range milk producers, independently audited to ensure that accredited producers are actually doing what it says on the label.

The sad decline of Lancashire dairy farms and rural communities

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