OFM Awards 2019: Best producer – Jess’s Ladies Organic Milk
It’s like the milk I remember drinking as a child,” is what Jess Vaughan’s customers tell her when they inevitably come back for more. In an industry that views milk as a cheap and homogenous commodity, sloshing down the motorways in vast tankers, Vaughan has blazed a trail in turning the output of her British Friesians and Brown Swiss into cult ingredients. As well as the milk, her cream, yogurt and kefir are revered for their rich, untampered flavours. Vaughan’s secret? “A small herd of happy cows,” she says, but there’s more to it than that.
As the third generation of her family to run Hardwicke Farm, near Gloucester, Vaughan knows the land and her ladies (as she affectionately calls the herd) intimately. Many of them are descended from the first three cows her grandparents began farming with in 1955: Bluebird, Gypsy and Glow-Worm. Alongside her father, Mike, with help on bottling days from sister Sophie, and milking assistance from a newly recruited cowman, she controls the journey of her products from udder to bottle.
Much of the flavour of the milk is governed by the grass itself, Vaughan tells me as she practically vaults over a five-bar gate to introduce me to the 75-strong herd. “Lots of people outside agriculture think that grass just grows, but you do treat it as a crop,” she says. The farm gained organic certification in 1999 and the land, from the grass and clovers for chomping to the soil beneath them, benefits from “a full organic cycle”. Fields are rotated, with some reserved for red clover which is fermented as silage for winter feed.
The ladies themselves appear to be living the bucolic dream; grazing and rearing their calves amid jaw-dropping views of the Cotswolds and the spire of Gloucester cathedral rising in the distance. “A few of them are on their summer holidays,” she says, “taking three months to just chill out round the farm.” All the calves are kept with their mums until they’re fully weaned, she says. “We had about six arrive in the last two weeks.” She points out Roo, just 12 days old and growing well. Once the males are weaned, they’re bought by a nearby farmer friend to rear for meat, and will never face stressful cattle markets.
There’s nothing intimidating about walking among this friendly herd of ruminating beasts, lolloping about as proprietorially as pets. Tigger, so-called because of her unusual stripes, is still going strong at 16 years old whereas, on average, says Vaughan, “dairy cows don’t often get much beyond five. Our average is 15, but then they’re not pushed in their production.” They don’t have their first calf until they’re three and a half – a good year later than standard practice.
Vaughan grew up on the farm, only leaving briefly to study agriculture and animal science at Aberystwyth University. When she returned in 2002, she recalls, “the organic market was flat on the floor”. The family had no choice but to sell their organic milk into “conventional supply at about 15p a litre, which was not sustainable”. Her dream for the family to bottle and sell their milk direct to the public was perhaps their only hope of being able to stay afloat.
“In 2006 we set about converting the shed on the farm to a bottling plant,” she says. Much like the bijou milking parlour, the bottling production line is so dinky that you could imagine Wallace and Gromit operating it. “It’s semi-automatic but it’s also semi-chaos,” she says. The raw milk is first gently pasteurised, but at a lower temperature and for less time than regular milk. It isn’t homogenised, which is when fat molecules are broken down so the cream can’t separate – a process that prolongs shelf life but destroys flavour.
Their whole milk, which they call breakfast milk, flies off the weekly stall at nearby Stroud Farmers’ Market, its taste as good as identical to that of its raw state. The creamy yogurt contains no added sugar or stabilisers, and the kefir comes in both “skinny” and full-fat versions. Chefs love Jess’s Ladies’ cream not only for its taste but its viscosity and tendency not to split in cooking. “We used to supply the Fat Duck and lots of famous restaurants, but it was just getting it there,” says Jess.
While the products are currently mostly sold at farm shops and Co-ops in the south-west and Midlands (where they plan to introduce refillable glass bottles), new distributors have now made nationwide shipping possible, starting with overnight kefir deliveries, ordered online.
As we talk, we pass a pair of cows nuzzling each other. “They love each other,” says Vaughan. “There’s research showing that cows can’t remember any more than eight individuals, so in big herds you’ll find little pods of cows who know each other.” Next we pass an old girl of 18. “You do get very attached to them because you have them as long as a family dog, and you’re with them every day,” she says. Vaughn feels no need to capitalise on her success and scale up: “We don’t want to risk dumbing down what we already do.” And besides, she adds, “We’ve got plenty enough milk to be doing what we want.”