Keeping it fraîche

Features Posted 28/01/20
The family-run dairy and processing facilities at Hinxden Farm near Benenden, Kent, have come a long way from the early days when John, Winifred and Thomasine Manford first started delivering one-pint glass bottles of untreated milk to friends and neighbours.

It all started back in the 1950s when the first half a dozen Guernsey cows, the only breed John Manford could afford to buy at the time, arrived at Hinxden Farm. Over the next 30 years, John, his wife Winifred, known as Winnie, and his sister Thomasine, known as Tam, put their heart into the dairy farm, developing the pedigree herd.

Throughout this time Winnie was doing a very small amount of processing, delivering milk to close friends and neighbours, but it was not until 1984, as milk quotas were rolled out across the country, that John and Winnie’s children Richard, Sally and Graham took the plunge and decided to diversify.

“We had just invested in a 10x10 herringbone parlour and were planning to increase the herd size and milk production, but as we couldn’t afford to buy more quota, our investment was in jeopardy,” said Richard Manford. “Mum was doing a small amount of direct sales and another local dairy was looking to give up, so we bought that business and focussed on processing the milk to try and bring in more money.”

As the family started producing quality gold top milk and cream from its Guernsey herd, they quickly realised that an increasing number of customers were requesting silver top as not everyone wanted rich Channel Island milk. In a bid to cater for all, the Manfords purchased their first 20 Holstein Friesians and from this were also able to offer semi-skimmed milk.

With a “fair bit of cream” being left over from the semi-skimmed milk production, the family took the logical decision to expand into double, single and whipping cream sales. This then paved the way for natural and flavoured yoghurt, crème fraîche, and most recently cheeses, which are thought to be the only Guernsey cheeses produced in the South of England.

“We now have 70 Guernsey and 200 Holsteins Friesians, which calf all year round and are kept as two separate herds,” said Richard’s wife, Dee Manford. “In total we have around 500 animals, including young stock, heifers and calves which are kept on rented land at Hole Park, Rolvenden. We currently farm about 800-acres, part owned and part rented, and as well as grass, we have 190-acres of maize for silage and 300-acres of combinable crops, including wheat, barley and oats, which provides us with straw.”

Hinxden Farm Dairy currently produces around 6,000-litres of milk per day; half of which is processed on site to meet customer demand, and the remainder is collected by Arla.

“We are very lucky to be able to process milk and still have an Arla contract,” said Richard. “Our business and the structure of the milk market has evolved over the years, but our contract has never changed. So, while most contracts are now all or nothing, or some may be allowed to process 1,000-litres per week, we are allowed to do both.”

Local team of workers

Supporting the next generation and creating job roles on the farm is often a driving force behind many diversification projects. With a busy dairy farm, processing facility and sales and distribution to manage, the business has not only created roles for John and Winnie’s children, but also Sally’s partner Les, Richard and Dee’s two daughters, Rebecca and Katy, and 12 full time and six part time local employees.

“If we hadn’t diversified, we simply wouldn’t be here and the farm certainly wouldn’t have generated enough income for three families,” said Richard, whose brother Graham has only recently retired from the retail dairy business. “We are very passionate about supporting the local economy and all our staff live within a couple of miles of the farm.”

The local team of workers play an integral part in every aspect of the business. Like a well-oiled machine, everyone’s role fits together neatly, from the person responsible for the cows’ welfare, ensuring that they produce the best quality milk, to the milkers, the member of staff in charge of sterilising the glass bottles, and those delivering on milk rounds six days a week.

“It is almost a 24-hour operation and even the smallest job is crucial,” said Dee. “There are a lot of processes which are still carried out by hand too, and we are currently expanding the processing facilities to make room for additional machinery, such as a plastic bottle filling line, to help mechanise some of our tedious manual tasks, like screwing bottle lids on.”

The new build, which is due to be completed in the Spring, will also allow the Manfords to “continue doing more of what we do well” and once fully operational, there will be more scope to discuss increasing sales.

21st Century approach

Currently, every product line produced at Hinxden Farm Dairy is available in small, individual retail sizes as well as bulk catering options for the wholesale market. Focused on working with businesses across Kent who care about local produce, traceability and premium quality, the Manfords supply a number of top-end establishments, from farm shops and cafés, to Michelin Star restaurants, such as Stark, Broadstairs, the Sportsman, Whitstable, the West House, Biddenden, Fordwich Arms, Canterbury, and other sought-after dining locations including the Red Lion, Stodmarsh, the Small Holding, Cranbrook and the Compasses Inn, Crundale.

“A lot of our retail customers have been with us since day one, and I think our first trade customer was Johnsons of Sandhurst,” said Dee. “We do as much as we can to support the trade in return. I often pick up groceries from customers, if we have an occasion and want to dine out, we try to go to one of the restaurants we supply, and we also offer to do in-store tastings and events to give their customers a chance to try the products and learn more about our farm.”

Boldly claiming never to have let a customer down, with a spare refrigerated delivery van always on stand-by and the farm’s faithful 4x4 available for wintery conditions, the business has simply grown on reputation, quality and service. The family has never needed to advertise in a traditional sense and has instead focused on attending village fetes, food festivals and door knocking to build up doorstep sales in the early days.

With the next generation, Rebecca, who also runs her own sports therapy business, and Katy, who has just graduated with a first-class honours degree in agriculture from Harper Adams, taking more responsibility in the business, the sales and marketing is certainly benefiting from a 21st Century approach.

“People want to know where their food and drink comes from and we are now quite prominent on social media,” said Rebecca Manford. “Instead of direct selling, we simply use it to educate people; to show them how we look after the animals and where our range of products comes from. We also have recipes and lots of customers tag us in posts too. With this, we have people asking if they can come and visit and through summer, we do try to encourage them to come at afternoon milking so they can appreciate everything we do here.”

As well as educating the masses via social media, as suppliers to several of the local prep schools and nurseries, Dee also arranges school visits throughout the year, going to talk in classes, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and product samples. The farm is also well set up to accommodate school trips.

“We host a lot of visits, not just with schools but also clubs like scouts and guides,” said Dee. “From our garden we can keep groups safe and secure, but they are able to watch nearly 300 cows coming in at milking time. They are often amazed by it all and we provide them with educational materials which they can take home with them too.”

Visiting the farm as a judge for the Taste of Kent Awards’ Farm Diversification of the Year Award, which is sponsored by South East Farmer, it is clear that the Manfords are incredibly passionate about all things dairy, from naming each of their pedigree cows, to ensuring that each delivery is as good as the last, promoting the industry, and educating the next generation about farming through social media and farm visits.

The business has successfully evolved from when John Manford bought his first Guernsey cows and by adapting to changes in the dairy, and wider food, industry, the modern retail dairy business continues to go from strength to strength.

“We have been doing this for a very long time and have been gradually getting better and better at it,” said Dee. “We have often won awards for our individual products, but we have never before been recognised for all the hard work which goes on behind the scenes. To be nominated for the award too, is not just a boost for the family, but for the whole team.”


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