Five years ago Nicky Doyle got fed up with milk price volatility and decided to branch out on his own and sell the 1,800 litres of milk which he was producing daily at his 70-acre farm directly to local shops.
It was a decision based on simple mathematics: “I came to the conclusion that I would make more money selling directly in the market on a sale and return basis. There’s a big difference between getting 30c/l from Glanbia and a euro a litre from selling directly to the supermarkets and artisan shops,” the 54-year-old says of his decision to go independent.
And thus began the Fairfield Farm milk brand which is available in shops along the east coast from Wicklow down to Waterford.
Nicky runs a herd of 50 Holsteins and British Friesian crosses. Having decided to go solo, he got up to speed with the art of pasteurising milk by completing food safety and management courses. He also “swotted up” on the business by consulting other independent milk producers in Valentia Island and Mitchelstown and then secured Department of Agriculture approval for his venture.
The next steps were to build a €70,000 pasteurising plant and refrigeration facilities, source a milk carton producer for his own brand product and buy a refrigerated van to transport Fairfield Farm milk to market under his logo: “Milk as it used to be”.
Then came the knocking on the doors and selling the milk. His first customer was the Ardkeen Quality Foodstore in Waterford and this breakthrough was quickly followed by orders from the Petit supermarket chain in the south east. Other artisan stores followed along with SuperValu shops along the east coast.
Nicky’s unique selling point is the traditional taste of his milk.
“There is a difference in my milk in that it is only pasteurised and not homogenised. It has a completely different taste. And non-homogenised milk is better for the heart according to the studies.
“I was talking to an old lad recently who is on a strict low fat diet who told me he buys the milk to put in his porridge as a total treat to himself and he says he loves it. He knows the difference!”
The economics and logistics of the venture are simple enough. Nicky receives €2 for his two litre cartons of milk which retail at €2.50.
Along with the day-to-day costs of running a dairy herd, other costs include 20c for the milk containers and 10c per litre for transport.
Nicky does most of the 800kms a week transportation himself which is no bother to him as he drove the farm’s cattle lorry for his father Nicholas Snr (85) until he took over running the family farm some 20 years ago.
But it is no easy job.
“It’s 7 am to 10 pm, milking in the morning and evening and travelling every second day to get the milk to market. You can’t afford to get sick with this job,” says Nicky, quickly adding that he gets sterling help from his wife Anne Marie.
Despite the long hours, Nicky is already in expansion mode. He has added a goats’ milk brand to the Fairfield Farm stock list.
He buys a 250 litres of milk from a local goat farmer every week and using the same pasteurising process, markets the product to the same retail outlets as the cows’ milk.
Nicky is also looking at increasing milk production in Enniscorthy. If he does, he will have to employ extra staff, but that’s a decision for the future.
In any case, Nicky believes we are heading for another round of milk price volatility this year which, he says, will be caused in no short measure by the current over-production of milk in Ireland and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, his business received another unexpected fillip during the recent storms when he was able to get his milk into the shops come hail, snow or blizzard.
“The snow was bad down here but I am in a valley and I was able to make my deliveries by jeep on time. New customers and shops were on the phone throughout the snows looking for Fairfield Farm milk and the upside is that I now have new customers and more shops on board.”
The €600 bargain filly that landed a €110,000 windfall
The Doyles have been dairy farming in Enniscorthy for three generations and also keep a few mares for breeding purposes.
This is not unusual for farmers in Wexford where hunting is part of the rural landscape.
Nicky takes an interest in local point to points and breeds some hunters.
“We’ve about 10 horses on the farm and two mares. We breed and sell — we are talking about sales in the €7,000 to €17,000 region and I breed from the cheapest sires I can get,” he says. But occasionally the sideline can land a substantial windfall.
Two years his “horse mad” dad Nicholas Snr had an extraordinary stroke of luck. He bought a Westerner filly from a friend for a mere €600.
The bay filly, who already had two points to points in the bag, was sent to the St Patrick’s Day sale at Cheltenham where the gavel came down at €110,000. Bingo.
The filly, Three Swallowsnick, was bought by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown operation and is currently in training with Gordon Elliot.
Nicky says that his father “still makes the annual pilgrimage to Galway and is totally taken up with the horses.
“That’s why we still have a few horses on the farm.”
Nicky and Anne Marie have five children: MJ (25) who is in Spain working as an English teacher; Helena (22) who works with a local yoghurt manufacturing firm; Nick (20) who is studying agriculture at Carlow IT; Patricia (19) a student nurse in Waterford and Sarah (18) who is currently facing into her Leaving Certificate.
And all help out on the farm when time allows.
It will be interesting to see how the next generation carry on the horsey tradition, but for now their main sporting interest centres on the GAA fields of Wexford, especially Nick who is making his mark this year with the Wexford senior football team.
By: Ken Whelan