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Award-winning dairy produce bolsters Scottish family farm

Published: 23 October 2015

For Robert and Katy Rodger of Knockraich Farm near Fintry in central Scotland, converting an old calf barn into a busy coffee shop and diversifying into ice cream, yogurt and cheese production has helped to keep their family’s small dairy farm on the map.

Knockraich Farm has been owned by the Rodger family since the 1950s and has just won the Silver Award for Family Farming Business of the Year 2015 in the British Farming Awards. Today the 80-acre farm is home to 60 Friesians, which, for the last six months, have been milked robotically. The dairy cows and young stock are managed by Robert Rodger, but the wider diversified business – which includes the ‘Courtyard Café’, a soft furnishing showroom, wedding venue and a milk processing dairy – is very much a family affair.

“Keeping the cows in the fields and maintaining the farm for future generations is the biggest inspiration for us as dairy farmers,” Robert Rodger explains. “Unfortunately, falling milk prices had meant that our small dairy herd was under threat. We have therefore created a range of diversified ventures to increase the overall functionality and profitability of the farm. As part of this, our range of value-added dairy products is made exclusively from our own cows’ milk for which the farm is paid higher than the market value.”

Nine years ago, Katy, Robert’s wife, opened a farm shop and café in a converted calf barn. She also runs a soft furnishings business from the farm; the two businesses working hand in hand to attract paying customers through the farm gate. The café is now managed by Catherine, one of the couple’s two daughters, with her sister, Helena, overseeing all the farm’s non-agricultural ventures. Their brother, Ian, a local farm vet, is also involved in the diversified business, having planted an apple orchard five years ago to make better use of a two acre plot which is also used as the café’s kitchen garden.

Robert Rodger (top right) with his seven grandchildren and son Ian at the official commissioning of one of the farm’s robots.

Katy’s time is now split between the soft furnishings business and the farm’s dairy processing venture. “We started producing ice cream in 2011 in an attempt to add value to the herd’s milk,” she explains. “It was a difficult market to break into though. So, we reassessed our strategy and started making other dairy products as well. Rather than focusing solely on producing ice cream for children, we wanted to target a more sophisticated, grown-up market.

“It was the yogurt which really took off first, finding a gap in the market as there did not seem to be any other premium Scottish yogurt producers.”

A year after making their first batch of yogurt, the ‘Katy Rodgers’ brand won its first accolade at the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards. “We have since won a number of other awards, but it was that first breakthrough that made the real difference. Until then our brand was relatively unknown, but overnight the phone started ringing with enquiries from some major supermarkets who wanted to stock our produce.

“We currently sell the Katy Rodgers brand through Waitrose Scotland and are in negotiations to expand into a retail chain in the North of England in the near future.”

Having also supplied Aldi for 18 months and producing yogurt under the supermarket’s own brand, Katy is now concentrating more and more on the hotel, restaurant and food service sector. “The majority of our supply is now distributed to Scotland’s high-end hotels and Michelin star restaurants,” Katy adds.

AMC were easier to deal with than a number of their competitors and offered good rates of interest

Robert Rodger Knockraich Farm, Stirlingshire

Despite the brand’s success, the family’s foray into food production has not cost the earth. “We started on a very small scale using an assortment of second hand equipment which is operated on a shift basis,” Katy continues. “I work the early shift, starting at 2:45am, before handing over to the day shift and moving across to the soft furnishings business for the rest of the day. It is a lot of hard work, but ultimately very satisfying.”

The dairy processing enterprise is now housed in a self-contained, purpose-built facility, which has been funded using a long-term AMC loan. “We took our first AMC loan out in 2009 to get the café up and running and have subsequently extended our borrowings to enable us to invest in the dairy processing plant,” Katy describes.

“AMC understood from the very outset what we were trying to achieve and have been exceptionally easy to work with.”

The traditional dairy farming enterprise is also financed by an AMC loan – albeit by an entirely separate facility as the two sides of the Rodger’s business are managed as distinct units. “We took out an AMC loan eight years ago to build a new calf and tool shed after the farm’s original calf housing was converted into the coffee shop,” Robert explains.

“AMC were easier to deal with than a number of their competitors and offered good rates of interest. Their no-nonsense approach enabled us to build the new calf shed and get the coffee shop up and running as quickly as possible. That attitude is worth a lot, especially in the current economic climate.”

The Katy Rodgers brand has brought a new income stream to the small family farm.

With the farm’s own ice cream, cheese, yogurt, crème fraiche and butter all being sold through the farm’s café and to some of Scotland’s best hotels and restaurants, the Rodgers have developed a strong and profitable brand. “We are still only processing a small amount of the herd’s milk, but I would like to think we will one day be processing the majority, if not all of the milk we produce. That is the best strategy we have got when it comes to dealing with falling milk prices,” Robert concludes.

For more information about the Rodger’s diversified business visit www.knockraich.com.

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