While for the majority of people in the western world milk has long been a staple of life, it occasionally gets a bit of a bad rap among the health-food aficionados. Back in the 70s and 80s, the idea prevailed that consuming fat made you... well, fat. Health-conscious people began to choose semi- skimmed or even skimmed milk, and turned their backs on butter and ‘full-fat’ cheeses. Until fairly recently, that is, when we started hearing about ‘good fats’ versus ‘bad fats’. Avocado, olive oil, seed oils: good. Animal fat, cream, butter: still bad.
But now there’s another shift: fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar does! Carbs are the baddies! In the meantime, millions of people haven’t changed their diets at all – they have been eating a balanced diet with a moderation of fats, sugars, carbs, proteins and fruit and veg. If you consume too much, or if you don’t have a good balance, and you don’t exercise enough – yes, you will get fat! You will be at risk of heart disease and other afflictions of bad lifestyle.
As a western woman, it is well-nigh impossible to avoid the onslaught of nutrition advice. Milk hasn’t just had a bad rap where fat is concerned – it’s also blamed for digestive problems. Our bodies, we are told, are not designed to drink the milk for calves. However, the statistics tell us that the majority of us are perfectly capable or digesting milk without adverse effects. It’s estimated that only 5% of the population are actually lactose intolerant (that is, do not possess the gut enzymes needed to break down the milk sugar, lactose). On the other hand, it has also been estimated that 20% of the population does have some issue with breaking down milk protein. And many people claim that milk produces gas, discomfort, diarrhoea and IBS symptoms.
We all know that milk is good for you. Whole milk contains a mere 3.6% fats compared with 2% for semi skimmed. So, unless you are actively trying to reduce your cholesterol, or you have a tendency to drink multiple litres of milk a day, the ‘too much fat’ argument kind of falls flat. Milk contains protein, calcium and omega 3s, all catch-words for ‘healthy diet’. And the richer the milk, the more of the above it contains. However, the mass-produced, homogenised milk that you buy in shops and supermarkets may not be providing you with as much of the above nutrients as you might think. Which is where Cornish dairy farmers Rachel and Chris Knowles come in.
Cornwall is ideally suited to dairy farming – it rains a lot, it doesn’t get too cold, and it gets lots of sunshine (yes, really). On a 500-acre plot near St Ives, with views southward towards St Michael’s Mount, are spread the lush green fields of Trink Farm. Owned by Chris Knowles’s family for generations, the farm is where he and his wife Rachel have been raising their three girls as well as a herd of 300 Jersey/Friesian milking cows since the 1990s. For years, Chris has been developing his passion for grass. Rachel chuckles as she sits outside the stylish wood-clad dairy building that has recently been extended. “Every time we go on a family walk, he’s picking blades of grass and studying it...” Chris grins, “I’m always interested in grass. We measure how fast it’s growing each week and plot it on a computer programme so that we can work out where to graze the cows next, and budget how much we’ve got for silage.”
Breeding is a big deal for Chris, too: the smaller the breed (Jerseys, for example), the more concentrated the milk – so you get more nutrients per pint than you do from the large, more commonly used, high-yield cows like Holsteins. Plus, he explains, great big cows can’t physically eat enough grass during the day to produce the requisite volume of milk, so they have to be given extra food. Choosing a blend of Jerseys and traditional Friesians has meant that, while they get a lower volume, Trink’s milk is richer, containing more buttermilk and protein per litre. And there are financial incentives for milk that contains more buttermilk and protein.
All the dairy farms in the region, including Trink, sell their milk to a ‘pool’: their milk is taken away in a tanker and pasteurised (heated to kill bacteria) and homogenised (treated so that the cream doesn’t separate from the milk) with milk from all the other farms. This system reduces risk for farmers like Chris and Rachel, whose milk production is seasonal – two months of the year, just before they calve, their cattle are not milked at all.
But Rachel had another idea. Back in the summer of 2016, she thought about selling their rich, grass-fed, top-quality milk direct to the consumer. “I was frustrated that we had no connection with the consumer and people were asking how they could buy our milk. There is a great big rift between us and the end user,” she says. Chris adds: “The interesting part of it for me is that milk is such a basic staple product, and yet most people’s experience is very bland. The process that milk undergoes before it gets to the shelf changes it. Our milk is the natural product before it goes through those processes.” Waving his hand towards the fields, he says, “It is the product of those cows on that land, eating that grass. So it’s got its own distinctive taste.”
With the bit between her teeth, Rachel applied for EU funding, and got a grant to build a dairy. Having grown up on a mixed farm, studied at agricultural college and helped to run Trink for 20 years, she wanted to put her knowledge into action. Because of the low volume she was using, Rachel chose an ‘in-line’ pasteurising system that gently heats the milk as it circulates through a system of pipes – which, according to her research, is the best way to maintain the quality of the milk.
While some other milk factories use in-line pasteurising (as opposed to ‘batch pasteurising’, where all the milk is put into one big vat and heated up), they pasteurise a lot more litres per minute at higher temperatures to give them a longer shelf life. Large milk producers also homogenise the milk – breaking down the fat molecules by forcing the milk through tiny tubes at high pressure – increasing the shelf-life and stopping the cream from rising to the top. While there’s no evidence that this process negatively affects the nutritional aspect of milk, Rachel says that it affects the overall taste: “homogenising is ‘denaturing’ the milk. Here, we’re not processing it, we are just pasteurising.” Of course, like anything produced on a smaller scale, Trink milk is a few pennies more per pint than your average shop-bought milk. “Our milk is more expensive,” Rachel explains, “because we’re not splitting the milk and removing the expensive bits like cream and butter and selling them separately – we are selling whole milk.”
She then co-ordinated the project, developed the dairy, bought the equipment, and within a year of her light-bulb moment, milk was available to buy on the premises – seven days a week, 24 hours a day. “We’ve hit on this at a really good time,” says Rachel, enthusiastically. “People want whole, unprocessed food. And milk is not expensive.” The bulk of the farm’s milk is still being collected in tankers, but Rachel siphons off what she needs for the Trink Milk dairy, and local people come and buy the milk any time they please.
Rachel is a novice when it comes to marketing, she confesses, and she hasn’t the time to attend farmers’ markets and such, which means most of her trade comes from word of mouth. However, the interest has inevitably picked up. Local restaurant and deli, Scarlet Wines, has started buying Trink milk – citing its taste and frothability as key drivers. John Keast, Scarlet’s owner, admits that Trink milk is slightly more expensive than the homogenised milk he stocked previously, but raising the price of a cup of coffee by a few pence has covered the extra expense – and he claims the patrons love it. Hotels and restaurants in
the area have begun to buy the milk, and local coffee roasters, Origin, have also bought in. Trink milk is even being used in a national barista competition in Bristol this month. Signing up with food distributors St Ives Foods and Lillie Brothers meant that Rachel can now take Trink milk out of the St Ives radius: “Using these distributers is part of our sustainable ethos. We don’t really want to put another van on the road...”
Rachel and Chris are keen on the whole cyclical nature of milk, so the idea of bringing education into the mix is key. Rachel points to the big windows on the side of the dairy with its pristine pasteurising room and gleaming pipework and view into the milking parlour. “We encourage school visits,” she says. Thanks to the ‘clean entrance’ (no cows walk around the front of the dairy), it’s easy to bring people up without worrying about health and safety issues, and the dairy has achieved a top-scoring 5 on the Food Hygiene rating.
Rachel’s latest coup is getting local pre-schools to buy her milk. Every nursery in the UK has a provision for a set amount of milk, paid for by the government. A number of the local pre-primary schools have opted to use Trink milk, and now local primary schools are making enquiries. “It’s great link in the circle,” adds Chris. “The children get an opportunity to come out to the farm. They can see where it comes from, how it’s produced and then drink the milk. Sowing the little seed. That’s how it all works.”
Rachel is gently nurturing the business, and the market seems to be ready. We’re becoming more focused on whole foods, more interested in the provenance of our animal-based products. Cows that graze in 500 acres of fields for 10 months of the year, milk that is produced and sold locally, and pasteurised using a gentle system – it ticks pretty much every box. Even the quiet progression of the business (Rachel is a fan of ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’) is natural. It seems that word of mouth and “a bit of social media” might be enough to launch the drink-Trink milk wagon onto a bigger stage.