Chris Berry visits ‘Oscar’ winners the Ross family in Morthen

Winning a ‘Rural Oscar’ doesn’t necessarily mean everything in the English country garden (or farm) is rosy but it is another tick in the box under the ‘must be doing something right’ column.

The Ross family of Lawns Farm in the hamlet of Morthen, near Thurcroft in South Yorkshire has taken two significant strides in recent times that have led to them receiving the title of Best Local Food & Drink in the latest Countryside Alliance’s major awards.

Morthen Milk, their own branded milk from their dairy herd, is sold direct from the farm and they are building up doorstep delivery too. It has a long way to go but the start they have made has been impressive and they clearly have the guts and determination to grow it further. The other major strand that saw them carry off the title is Lawns Farm Shop that, during the dark days of the previous two years’ milk prices, has carried them through – including their own beef.

The farm, which is owned by the family, runs to just under 200 acres and is predominantly dairy along with finishing Longhorn X Dairy cattle for the farm shop. The dairy herd runs to 65 milkers with around 30 followers and they have 50 beef cattle on at any one time. They also have rare breed Gloucester Old Spot and British Lop pigs and have just started with the Mangalitsa breed.

David is head of the family and has four sons – George, Laurence, Christopher and Anthony. David’s father Alfred Edwin Ross, known to many simply as Jimmy, came from Glasgow to Morthen in 1940. Jimmy’s spinster auntie was companion to the lady resident at Morthen Hall and when Jimmy’s father died he was sent to South Yorkshire to be looked after by her. Jimmy was sent to the Bayston family at Swinefleet, near Howden to learn about farming, came back to look after the pigs at the hall, subsequently met the farmer’s daughter next door, took on Lawns Farm with dairy cattle and pigs in 1942 and David was born in 1946.

‘I left college in 1967,’ says David. ‘I’d studied for my NDA at Shuttleworth College had taken my exams there and another in Leeds. My plan had been to work around the world a couple of years but father was getting tired and said that I should either stay at home and have the farm or go around the world and he would sell it so I stayed, as you can see. Dad and I worked together non-stop for the next 11 years, we increased the herd, put a new parlour in and if we went to the Great Yorkshire Show it was only after milking in the morning and back for evening milking.’

David’s wanderlust was not to be assuaged completely. Spain led to more than just travel!

‘My sister’s best friend was married to a Spanish man. I met Pilar, my wife-to-be, when his sister came over in August. I went to Spain for a week in October that same year and we got married.’

Pilar became known as Pili. She tragically passed away of brain cancer when just 55. Three of David’s sons are involved with the farm today.

‘George went off to be a quantity surveyor, but came back to the farm in 2014. Laurence wanted to be an aircraft manager and now builds petrol stations. Chris was always going to be a farmer and Anthony was set to be a forensic scientist but now runs the farm shop and butchery. We decided that if he was going to be part of the farm we needed another enterprise.’

From forensics to cutting up meat took time and Anthony sought out the right education and experience before starting the butchery on the farm.

‘I’d cut up pigs before as we used to sell half pig boxes from the farm gate and I’d been involved with preparing turkeys and geese for Christmas orders before so it wasn’t wholly new territory but I went off and worked for a local butcher to learn the trade professionally. It was when I came back having gained the experience that we built the shop. We’ve been open for five years now and have another butcher as well as myself and a couple of part-time staff for the deli. We’d like to expand the farm shop further to include a café and bistro in the near future once finances allow. Our main lines include steaks, burgers, steak pies, pork pies and homemade sausages. We have all manner of dry goods and vegetables and buy lamb from local farmers.’

George came back three years ago having spent five years working in London and eight years in Australia following his studies at Loughborough University.

‘I loved the life in London in my early 20s and had a fantastic time in Sydney and on the Gold Coast, but I’m a farmer at heart and dad’s knees had packed up. The farm was and still is struggling not through any fault of dad or anyone else. It’s the way farming and the world has changed.

‘The milk price started to crash and just when I thought it couldn’t go even lower it did. We went from 30p per litre to 14p. Every time the tanker left it was taking money out of our pockets. Fortunately we had the shop. That’s when I realised the system we are still in but are now trying to move out of doesn’t work. Liquid milk is a commodities market and we can’t compete with 2000-strong cow herds in the US and 1000 cow herds in Australia. We’ve no chance on the market. We’re just a small family farm.

‘What I began to understand through what we’ve done with the farm shop is that adding value by marketing local fresh produce to local people can give us a better margin – and also works well with local people who are now what we are all about. So we’re trying our level best to move out of the commodities market and concentrating our efforts on connecting with our consumers, people who live close to us.

‘We now bottle our own branded milk. It’s from grass to glass, or maybe plas (plastic)! Our cows are born, reared and milked on the farm and we get that message across every time we can. We’re offering that most personal of service too, delivery to your door.

‘It will take us more time before we reach the point where 100 per cent of our milk is delivered or sold direct from the farm but we’re on our way. Our 65 milkers average 7000 litres per year, which means we’re producing around 420,000 litres. My initial target is for us to reach 10,000 litres sold from here every month. At present we’re around 4000 litres but we’ve only been going for a year. We’re bottling 1 and 2 litre plastic bottles.

‘It has been a steep learning curve from quantity surveying to farming, marketing, putting in a bottling plant, learning how to pasteurise, bottle it, branding and set up a milk round from scratch. I milk the cows in the morning, our apprentice milks in the afternoon while I bottle from 5pm. Chris delivers it in the morning so it is milked, bottled and delivered in 24 hours – hence our name, making use of our aptly named hamlet, it’s Morthen Milk.

‘The shop already had a good following on social media so we’ve been able to bounce off the back of that with the milk. We’ve found that once you get one person in a neighbourhood all of a sudden that can develop into three of four.’

The Ross family sells the lion’s share of its milk to Buckley Dairies whose price in common with others in the sector has risen steadily since the really dark days of last year. George sees the farm’s future looking a little healthier, but is confident that their approach to marketing Morthen Milk is the way forward. He would also like to see other improvements made for their dairy herd when cash allows.

‘Cow welfare is vital, especially when we’re marketing the way we are. We want people to see that our cows have happy lives. Ideally I’d like to go to a loose-housed system and with robotic milking; that way we also get real time feedback about the herd too and can act before any problems occur.’

Clover, maize, wheat and barley are all grown for feed and the farm has 50 acres of permanent pasture. The land is largely on clay and coal measures.

Connecting with the public has become not just about selling their wares but also running events on the farm too. They were part of the national Open Farm Sunday in June and also host their own mini-Glastonbury called FARMFEST in August.

‘We started FARMFEST four years ago and FARMFEST 4 will be held on Sunday 27 August this year when The Chris Berry Band will be playing!’ says George. We had 400 the first year but last year’s attracted nearly 3000! Come along and see us. There will also be piglet racing, Lewis the Longhorn and Oprah the dairy cow who can be milked by hand.’