Meeting Report: Milk! From Grass to the Table

23 October 2015
Stuart Martin

Stuart Martin, an Ulsterman, addressed Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the subject of Milk! from Grass to the Table. He instantly won over his audience with his Irish humour, a twinkle in his eye and clear, lilting speech.

Early in a career devoted to the milk industry he found employment based in Northern Ireland, after graduating, with the Northern Foods Company for eight years, during the last five of which he served as technical manager. At national milk meetings he met Hal McGhie from Lochmaben, a well-known figure in the milk production field. In 1978 Hal asked him to join his work force in south-west Scotland.

He moved on to Scottish Pride and Scottish Milk under Milk Marketing Board auspices, which included Kircudbright Creamery, Arran Cheese, Rothesay Cheese and McGhie’s Dairies. There was an annual turnover of a staggering 420 million gallons.

He was very impressed with dairying here in south-west Scotland. The grass-growing potential was great and stockmanship excellent. He retained his contacts with the industry in Northern Ireland by writing for Farm Week, an Irish magazine. In Ireland the shorthorn cow prevailed; here it was a mix of Ayrshire and British Friesian stock. Stuart regrets the decline in stocks of Ayrshires, an attractive-looking breed. Today it is the Holstein that is favoured because of its higher milk-producing qualities. At the outset of Stuart's career in the late 1960s the average yield per cow was 5,000 litres; now it is over 7,000 litres and the best cows are averaging 10,000 litres.

The establishment of the Milk Marketing Board in 1933 had assured the farmer of a market. A directive from the European Community served to mark the beginning of the end of the MMB from 1994. The dairy farmer is now on the rack and subjected to the supermarkets' use of milk as a loss-leader to attract custom. The glut of milk is heightened by the fact that China has established three 45,000 cow units in partnership with Russia, which has stopped taking milk from the West. Family-run farms can just about survive if they have plenty of grass because they don’t have high labour costs. A year ago farmers were receiving 33½ pence per litre; now it has fallen to 23 pence and for some it is as low as 19 pence.

In the mid-1800s the mainstay of farms was cheese-making because of the problems presented by the marketing of fresh milk and butter. For instance, in Wigtownshire small co-operatives were formed. In time they were swallowed up by the Galloway Creamery, which today is owned by the French company, Lactolus. Rowan Glen at Newton Stewart is owned by a Northern Ireland Company, while the Lockerbie Creamery is owned by Arla, a Danish firm. The names of former successful companies like Carnation and Unigate have disappeared. The German Company, Müller, in the Midlands is probably the most successful company marketing yogurt.

Health issues have caused major changes, such as an increased demand for semi-skimmed and skimmed milk in the UK and a corresponding reduction in the sale of cream, which is passed to Denmark and Sweden.

There have been other developments. The arrival of the milking machine in the 1930s caused a breakthrough in the dairy industry. Wallace, an engineering firm in Castle Douglas, led the way in their manufacture. Bigger herds ensued. The milk churn was a common sight at the end of a farm lane fifty years ago. They were superseded by the bulk milk tanker: the first such uplift was from Drum Farm, Beeswing, by T.P. Niven. Now the whole industry is highly automated as it moved through the milking-parlour period to the current use of robots: no hands are involved in cheese-making or in preparation of liquid milk for retail; the resulting improvement in hygiene has caused the shelf-life of milk to rise from 4–5 days to 12 days.

In 1997 Stuart went into a partnership in North Lakes Foods, Penrith, with whom he served as Managing Director for seven years. After selling the business he became a non-executive director, a position he retains. From 1998 to 2004 he was also a director of Scottish Milk Dairies, based in Hamilton. Stuart brought along some artefacts once common in the milk industry: butter churn, cream separator, milk bottles even. Reflecting the move to providing young primary children with one third of a pint of milk he displayed the new-style carton which the authorities demand.

He ended with a note left for the daily milkman, now a rarity, delivering milk to the doorstep: "I've just had a baby. Leave another!"