Named after the Dyfi river that flows through the Welsh valley, Dyfi Dairy is run by tenant farmers Sophia and Scott, with Sam joining recently to help with admin. The beginning of Dyfi Dairy can be traced back to Sophia’s farming apprenticeship in Norway, where she was able to save £9,000 and rent a small piece of land back in the Welsh Dyfi Valley. The farm has evolved slowly over time, from the humble beginnings of 2 goats on a 6-acre plot, then expanding to 10 milking goats and 2 dairy cows. As the herd size grew, the team managed to locate a much larger plot (30 acres) within the same valley and began to scale up their business – they now have 15 cows and 60 goats (15 milkers, and another 20 that are being raised to join the milking herd next season).
Sophia runs a calf-at-foot dairy. They also keep male cows and goats on the farm, and rent them out as conservation grazers. The male goats are also used for public-facing activities where school groups and visitors come to the farm. The cows are a Jersey Friesian mix which work well due to their generally calm nature and easy handling, plus the ability to create many different products from the high quality milk.
The dairy has had to adapt their grazing system to the land and stocking density over the years. Originally they were able to run an almost entirely pasture fed system, but with the introduction of cattle it became obvious that they wouldn’t be able to continue, even with tight rotational grazing. Luckily somebody fairly local has been able to provide them with good quality organic hay to top up feeding.
I wanted to centre the experience of the animals I work with. I wanted a method that benefited the farmer and the herd. I’ve worked on a few larger farms and some of the practices I experienced were miserable for both people and animals. For us at Dyfi Dairy, centering the experience of the animals looks like milking once a day, and keeping the young with their mums until they naturally wean. We use low-stress animal handling techniques, so no quads or dogs. We don’t use any negatively coercive handling methods – everyone has been trained in using positive reinforcement.
I wanted to centre the experience of the animals I work with.
And we keep male goats and cows on the farm – we’re able to use them as conservation grazers. I’m not against meat production – the place I studied at in Norway had an amazing system where all of the male goat kids who were born on the farm were also slaughtered and butchered on the farm. It was incredible to see that cycle, every part of them was used. It was set up as a community day, where lots of people of different ages came together and helped to process the meat – so many products were made from so few animals, and fed so many people.
When I moved back here, I couldn’t imagine just sending the males off to be part of some other system. So until that changes or until we are at a stage where we are set up for slaughtering, butchering and processing meat in a way that aligns with our principles, we will continue doing the conservation grazing. It’s been really lovely actually, being able to form like lifelong lasting bonds with all of the animals in the herd.
10 years isn’t long enough to know if our retirement system will work, but we are committed to trying. We are coming up to having our first retired milker. I think she has maybe got a couple more years before she retires and our plan is to keep her on the farm. There’s plenty of space because we keep the herds small. The higher price of our products allows for us to provide for non productive animals on the farm. The fudge we sell is a good example of this, we can make a lot of fudge with relatively little dairy. Having that kind of product means we can afford to keep the old girls around.
So, who knows? If the entire system changes in the future and it looks like I could do meat production in a way that felt right and respectful then I’m fine with that. But at the moment, retired animals will move into more public facing, animal therapy type jobs.
Usually they’ll naturally wean off, but it depends on the individual. We have a 2 year old steer who will still suckle from his mum. He is the biggest baby known to man! He’s bigger than she is now! But obviously before they’re set to calve again they need a good two or three months rest time when they’re not milking, so we will separate them in the field using an electric fence. So they’re still able to see each other, but we make sure they’re separated for the 2-3 month drying off period. We find that they may go back after that and have the occasional suckle, but on the whole that period is enough for them to just live together as a mixed herd and it doesn’t affect anything too much.
The biggest barrier is that there are lots of gaps in support when you do something that is really against the grain, especially small scale – you don’t have access to the kind of resources someone on a larger farm or a family farm might have. So I think for us it came down to not being born into a farming family. There was a lack of generational knowledge and support, a lack of farm cover. It is tricky, balancing a farm of the size we have without having uncles and aunties to step in and do a milking shift. We had to learn everything from scratch. When you say to people that you are a farmer, they assume you are a food producer but you are also a mechanic, an electrician, a builder and now a social media marketer. So yeah, there are a lot of jobs to learn from scratch.
And then, obviously money was a barrier. The farm was started with incredibly limited funds, and I mean, £9000 was the most I’ve ever had in my life, and it still wouldn’t feel like a lot to some people as a starter farm. So that has meant working second or third jobs because we don’t have access to government subsidies or business loans. And neither one of us has inheritance, so a lot of the usual ways of accessing funds or large sums of money have classically been off the table for us.
For overcoming barriers, one of the things that was really helpful was hosting volunteers on the farm. It’s definitely mentally tiring because you are taking care of other people’s needs and you are responsible for providing them with knowledge exchange, but having volunteers has been amazing. People from the community have got involved and it has just turned things that felt impossible, into something that’s quite possible. In terms of knowledge gaps and organisations that have helped, the Welsh Government scheme Farming Connect has been really instrumental in helping me level up via peer-to-peer learning.
If I was going to give anyone starting out as a first-generation tenant farmer advice, it would be don’t be afraid to go slowly. I think there’s such a push to expand as fast as you can and invest huge amounts of money and get top of the line infrastructure. But if you grow slowly, you can find what works for you then you can learn deeply – in a way that gives you confidence in yourself and what you’re doing in your business. I am only processing all the products I process and getting comfortable with these because I had a relatively low startup cost. On my current farm the processing set up is like a proper factory style kitchen, but if I had gone for that initially, the amount of debt I would have been in would have put a lot of pressure on me. So definitely – go slow and be comfortable with that.
Don’t be afraid to go slowly.
Absolutely. I mean, the community that we’ve been lucky enough to trust in has absolutely been with us from the very beginning. They’ve witnessed our learning process and they’ve seen the products improve, they’ve been there for all of the high points and the low points. One year we were actually robbed and our pasteuriser was stolen. For my birthday the community fundraised and bought all new equipment for the dairy which was incredible. I cried like a baby! I guess that’s because we have that intimate connection with people and they are really invested in the individual animals that their milk comes from. The coffee shop that we supply has framed photos of our cows on their walls… it’s incredible.
One of the ways we sell is through a subscription service where people sign up and they get their milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter and a pack of fudge weekly. This scheme has been the backbone of our business while everything else can fluctuate – it’s been our bread and butter. We found we had much better retention and people would continue to pay throughout the year when we had products over winter, compared to starting and stopping. Before, we had to put in a lot more man hours to re-advertise and get people to sign back up again. So rather than seasonal milking, we milk all year round. This actually started because we had a cow that was out of sync. We debated what to do and decided to just see how she did, and to sell her milk throughout the winter. It ended up making a big difference to how we work.
We create too many products really, but it’s part of what’s made us work in such a small space, because we mostly sell locally. We do raw goat and cow milk, a selection of cheeses, both pasteurised and raw. We do mozzarella, feta and soft cheese. Plus butter and yoghurt. We also make fudge which is the only thing we sell nationally at the moment.
We’ve been really lucky with our subscription service. People just pick up their weekly subscriptions, or, if they order through the website and select ‘local delivery’ they can pick it up from one of the two local food hubs in Aberystwyth or Machynlleth. Anything that’s not sold direct through the subscription service, we sell at local farmers markets and food fairs. The furthest north we’ve gone is North Yorkshire and probably furthest south is about Swansea. We also sell to local shops and cafes. Anything that doesn’t look like it’s going to sell through those means – which is quite rare, but for example during peak season we might have excess soft cheese or halloumi that isn’t selling completely because we have quite a large volume – then we would sell to restaurants. So, there’s sort of a hierarchy of sales – the subscription customers get the produce first, then its markets, then shops, and then cafes, pubs, and restaurants.
Our business does seem to be growing every year, and things get more secure every year. We really are incredibly lucky, I’ve almost got the exact same customers on our subscription box that we had at the very beginning.
I think one of the things that’s made a difference though, is that when the cost-of-living crisis hit, some local food producers in our area got together and applied for funding to make our local food more affordable via the Mach Veg Box scheme. It’s incredible, I wish everyone was doing it up and down the country. Bro Dyfi Community Renewables, which is a local wind farm and hydro company, had a massive windfall during the cost-of-living crisis and because they are community owned, they didn’t want to keep the profit and instead donated it to the local food producers collective. So people can sign up to the scheme, and pretty much pay half-price for local veg, bread and dairy through us. It works out to be similar to supermarket prices for customers and the scheme pays us full price.
The scheme is open to anyone local, so we did a social media push, making clear that it’s an honesty system and that nobody was going to be policing it. And actually, people were slow to take it up. We had to do a second round of advertising to let people know that it is there to be used. If you are thinking about whether you can afford to use your car or thinking about not putting the heating on, then yes – we are the right place for you. After that, we had a good surge and it was amazing to see.
As much as the barriers of not having a family farm and not having access loans have been difficult, they’ve also been their own blessing. Being self-funded has basically given me total control over the direction of the farm and the ability to just keep changing things around when it gets tight. I wouldn’t have been able to take so many risks if I had a bank loan. I wouldn’t be able to just start making a different product, trying a different sales avenue. It’s given me space to develop an ethical approach that again, if I was part of a family farm with a long standing tradition, I’m not sure that the on-farm ethics would have developed in the same way.
I’ll wax lyrical to anyone about milking once a day, I think that even large farms that are calf separating should milk once a day. Building a trust-based relationship with your animals takes a lot of the stress out of working with livestock. When I have helped with TB testing on other farms, it can be incredibly stressful for everyone involved – the actual effort of animal handling is quite an unpleasant and exhausting task for some people. Whereas, for us it’s a joy. Low stress animal handling makes working everyday joyful.
Building a trust-based relationship with your animals takes a lot of the stress out of working with livestock.
Our customers also like that we are a values-based farm. If you align with this, you will have customers that are loyal and customers that prioritise these values over cheap food. I joke all the time that we must be the only dairy with so many vegan customers. There are so many people who will only eat our dairy because they trust in the welfare standards, but they won’t eat dairy from a regular shop. We have a local pizza place who orders our mozzarella specifically for people who will only eat our dairy mozzarella.
I’m very pro collaboration over competition. We have a lot of people who come and volunteer on the farm or come here to learn before they go away and set up their own calf-at-foot dairy. I have friends that have said we are literally training our competition, but I don’t see it as competition. The valley we’re based in does not have a large population density and we basically turn over about £30,000 a year, which is fine and is enough for a comfortable lifestyle with a car, a roof over our heads and we can eat well. If we can do that with such a small population around us… it would be incredible if every town could have a micro dairy.
Absolutely. When Scott came on board, we decided to make it a partnership. We sat down and went through our vision for the future to make sure that we were fully aligned, and one of the things we did was look at how big we would grow. And we’re almost there. With the goats we originally said we didn’t want more than 10, but with more experience on the farm as well as more experience in processing we would probably feel comfortable hedging up to 20 milking goats at a time, and 20 cows. I still don’t think we would ever get out of that micro dairy bracket. I know farms that are massive and are able to keep good standards but I think part of what we enjoy about farming is having a personal relationship with every one of the animals, and you can’t really do that and do the type of low-stress animal handling we do without spending a lot of contact time with them.
Diversification has made a really big difference to having a healthy business. My original business plan was to only sell raw goats milk and that has totally changed. I made fudge one time to bulk out a farmers market table and now that’s the thing we sell nationally, and it funds a lot of what we are able to do, because it’s a commodity product. That just wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t experimented and been willing to try other things. We have a very ‘just say yes’ approach. Try it, and then don’t be afraid to assess and cancel if it doesn’t work for you. And if you hate doing it just knock it off. If neither of us enjoys the process then let it be done… but always experiment.
It’s insane how little other farmers I know are able to experiment. I’ve been trying to expand because we were offered an opportunity to supply Neal’s Yard with some cheese. But at the moment, we can’t really expand to that kind of size, so we talked to other farmers in our area to see if they could sell their milk to us. But they literally can’t, even if they split up their herds, and we ran the part of them through our process for example – they can’t get out of their contracts to even sell part of their milk.
I see so many people who are interested in farm ethics and animal welfare but they come down on farmers, as if they’re purposely and villainously making these dreadful choices. But it’s so complicated for people who are locked into that system. I’d love to get to a stage where instead of us expanding, we are able to help convert some other local farmers and then we would just be a processing hub. If there were more opportunities for local processing and local selling, a lot of people could transition away from systems that don’t work for the animals nor the farmer.
Right-hand photograph taken by Celf Calon.