“My friend Scott Lyon recently retired to Dornoch. He’s one of the few whose long career in the dairy industry led to ultimate success and financial reward. I keep asking him for the secret ingredient forever hoping to mimic his achievement, all he will say is you need put in a lot of hard work and a little luck.
I met up with Scott a couple of weeks ago amongst friends and whilst sharing a cold beverage I asked him about what things were like in the dairy world of 50 years ago.
He started his career as a management trainee with the North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board (Claymore Creameries) in the late 1960’s. The milk boards were really a nationalised industry set up in the 30’s to regulate milk production, to control market conditions and offer dairy farmers a consistent price. They invested in processing and manufacturing facilities throughout the UK and greatly innovated in the market.
The UK was divided into 5 milk board areas, 1 serving Northern Ireland, 1 England & Wales and 3 in Scotland, each with its own board of farmer producers who presided over what was one better than a cartel – a monopoly, there was no alternate supply.
The boards were broken up in the 1980’s to comply with European Union Competition law which then helped a free market economy to flourish and, more recently, considerable foreign investment.
On completion of his training, Scott was appointed manager of Castle Stuart Foods Ltd, a subsidiary of the North board, based in Harbour Road Inverness. Castle Stuart specialised in the manufacture of blue veined cheese. Blue Stuart, their main brand was based on a Stilton recipe. He was also solely responsible for the initial manufacture of Shropshire Blue – he freely admits that all he did was to add a little annatto to the Blue Stuart to make it go a deep orange colour and the rest is history.
One of his first roles was to look after all the member farms and collate information on milk production, utilisation, herd sizes etc.
The North Board area started in Morayshire, ran all the way up to Caithness and included the Orkney Isles.
Today there are 13 remaining dairy farms in Orkney, 2 in Caithness, 1 in Ross-Shire, 2 in Inverness-shire and 4 between Moray and Nairnshire, that’s a total of 22 operating dairy farms
In 1969 there were 322.
Not all had their milk collected by tanker, many still used 10 gallon churns which when full weighed almost 50kg! The average herd size was just 39 cows in Caithness, the biggest being Morayshire with an average of 93 – one of those farms now milks over 1,500 cows.
The price paid per gallon was 3/7d or 18p (Orkney producers received a 1d per gallon premium) = 4p for a litre. Inflate that to 2019 the farmer would receive 65p/litre, most now are paid less than 30p and you can buy a four pint bottle of milk in a supermarket for little over a £1 or less than 50p a litre. As dairy farmers love to point out that’s a lot less than you’d pay for a litre of water!
Given that today virtually all the Orkney, Caithness and Ross-shire milk plus some of Connage’s in Inverness-shire goes into cheese production that leaves just 5 dairies supplying the north with liquid milk for your cornflakes.
Now we haven’t simply stopped drinking milk however today size matters and so it’s transported all over the country from no more than 3 major processors in Scotland, mostly all based around the central belt.
Perhaps we should be drawing conclusions; to rail against the steady march of industrialised farming, talk of the horrendous cost to the environment of trunking milk around our depleted and dilapidated transport network, the sadness of empty fields devoid of livestock and ploughed every year for prairie style grain production.
In the last 50 years our average spend on food as a percentage of income has halved. That’s partly because we earn more than our parents did but also because, relatively speaking, food is cheap and getting cheaper and, whilst organics grow and food fads abound, for the vast majority of the population price is the leading component in the decision of what to buy and the market reflects that as we witness the incredible rise of the big retail discounters. Therefore what hope for the small producer, the dairy farmer who lets the cows out onto grass and farms in harmony with the seasons and environment.
Nick and Jo Mackenzie farm at Rootfield on the Black Isle. They are the one remaining herd in Ross-Shire and more than halfway through converting the breed to Ayrshire’s with a few Jersey’s thrown in.
Highland Fine Cheeses are contracted to pick up the bulk of their output. They also make ice cream, yogurt and process their own milk for sale from the farm.
Some months ago they installed a vending machine. The deal is simple, buy a glass bottle from dairy then go to the farm and pick up a litre of some of the nicest milk you will ever taste. Pasteurised? Yes, for it’s illegal to sell raw milk in Scotland but there’s no standardisation, the butter fat the cow gives is all in your bottle. There’s no homogenisation so it forms a delicious cream line at the top which is delicious on your porridge and it’s all done on farm, right there beside the byre so no road miles other than your trip to pick it up.
I sometimes sit in the milk tanker at the farm and watch with wonder at the steady stream of cars coming to the vending machine to buy a litre. I have to think that Nick and Jo Mackenzie have worked it out. How to make some money from the dairy industry. Certainly, they work very hard, but I’m not sure there’s any luck involved just innate intelligence and true ability. Something they clearly share with my friend Scott.
I do hope that one day I finally get it.”
– Rory Stone, Top Cheesemaker.