Burns Night Special: An Ayrshire Lad

To mark Burns Night, we thought we'd share the story of a young Ayrshire dairy farmer now farming the land once farmed by Robert Burns himself. In spite of the tough times in the dairy industry, he is refusing to bow to the pressure and is taking the family farm in a new direction as he tries to build a viable business for himself and his family. It's a long read, but it's a great story

Bryce Cunningham is the third generation of his family to farm at West Mossgiel, near Mauchline in Ayrshire. His grandfather took on a lease in 1948 and it later passed to his father - Robert Cunningham. Over the years the family built up the dairy business and developed the West Mossgiel herd to become one of the most respected herds of Ayrshire cows in the country.

After ten years of working in the motor trade for a Mercedes-Benz dealership, Bryce was beginning to think about whether or not he should come back to the family business when his father become ill which made his decision for him. He returned home to the farm and, when his father sadly died in late 2014, he took over the West Mossgiel tenancy and became head of the farming business.

With some of the most experienced dairy farmers struggling to keep their businesses viable in the current climate, Bryce has hardly had an easy time to enter the industry. The price paid to farmers in the UK for a litre of milk currently ranges from 14p to 35p. Bryce found himself at the lower end of this range with his production costs higher than his income. While his landlord (Ballochmyle Estate) has been supportive of him, being a tenant farmer makes it hard to raise capital to invest as he is not able to borrow against the value of his land. 

For Bryce, going out to milk cows everyday just to lose money was clearly not going to be sustainable, but rather than quit the industry altogether, Bryce has developed a business plan which will allow him to remain in milk and change the direction of his business. Big changes often involve painful decisions and reducing the size of his herd was not easy. Many of his best cows went under the hammer at Carlisle auction mart last December and he has gone from milking 130 cattle to milking 48.

The changes however set him on a path to move from not just producing a commodity to sell to a milk buyer but to also producing a value added product to sell direct to the consumer.

Last August, Bryce and his wife Amy (a nurse) opened a small farm shop in their farm house's conservatory. They quickly built up a regular trade thanks to their a range of "artisan type" produce from suppliers across Ayrshire including Dunlop Dairy cheese (Stewarton); Corrie Mains eggs (Mauchline); Woody's ice cream (Galston); butcher meat from Nethergate Larder (Dunlop); Graeme's Honey (Mossblown); home baking from Kate's Bakes (Ochiltree) and potatoes from their neighbour Skeoch Farm as well as turkey over Christmas and steak pies for New Year. They are still on the lookout for a supplier for fresh vegetables and of haggis made from Ayrshire reared lamb.

While this strong selection of high quality and hyper local produce has already attracted customers, the shop was ultimately designed as a vehicle to sell their own milk to the public. Until now they have been selling milk from A&J Douglas but they have invested in a pasteuriser which will allow them to sell their home produced milk.

"We were maybe a bit naive to start with" said Bryce. "We thought in a month we'd have it up and running but the costs were horrendous. That's the reason it's taken so long, the profits from the shop have been reinvested to put the pasteuriser in. We're building everything as we go."

While it may be taking longer than the Cunninghams hoped, the shop has already proved its worth and has kept them afloat as they realign the dairy part of the business.

The launch of their own "Mossgiel Milk" is scheduled for Burns Night (January 25) which is a more than appropriate date thanks to more than a few uncanny parallels between Bryce and the ploughman poet himself. Both moved to farm at Mossgiel - Bryce at West Mossgiel and Burns at the neighbouring East Mossgiel (known in his time as "Near Mossgiel") - in their mid to late twenties. Both found themselves heading up the family farming business shortly after the death of their father. Both of course farmed Ayrshire cows - incidentally known at an earlier stage in the development of the breed as the Cunningham cow. 

What's more Bryce has recently agreed with his landlord the Hagart-Alexander family who are the same family Burns would have let from - to take over the tenancy of part of East Mossgiel. Once his grazing system is up and running his cows will be grazing on the land once farmed by Burns himself (and where he wrote "To A Mouse" and many more of his most famous poems.)

With their own Mossgiel Milk soon to take pride of place in the farm shop, Bryce is keen to show that he is something different than the supermarket offering:

I'm going to milk a cow individually each day and pastuerise that milk for the shop, and put a sign up to show that customer that today's milk is from Lizzie or Miss Modern

"The whole point is to show the value of the milk and the work that goes into producing it," adds Amy. "We've offered to let people see the farm, the cows and the milkings and see how much work goes into producing a litre of milk. When people see Bryce out milking at six or seven o'clock at night they say is he still out working?' and yes he'll have been out working since five o'clock in the morning seven days a week."

Since setting up the shop they have been happy to be guided by their customers in terms of what to stock (demand led to them introduce semi-skimmed in addition to whole milk) and their opening hours (staying open until 8pm in the spring and summer months as customers enjoyed walking up to the farm shop of an evening.) While it's certainly the local providence of the food (as well as perhaps the story behind it) which is attracting their customers, they have found that there is still an element of education required. 

"The milk is pasteurised but it's not homogenised which means that the cream will naturally settle to the top. We have had people of our generation bringing the milk back because they had never seen that before and thought it had turned!" said Amy.

"It's just a matter of educating people. We've put a sign on the door; a shake well before use' label on the carton and if someone we don't recognise buys a carton of milk we do ask is this your first time?' just so they know what to expect!"

The educational element is something which Bryce hopes to build on with the long term plan being for the farm not just to provide a place to stock up on quality produce but to provide a visitor experience.

"We're working towards an open farm type set up, trying to rejig the front of the farm so there is something for people to come and see as well as the shop." said Bryce.

"I'm talking to East Ayrshire Council about potentially running school tours. I'd like to get a milking robot in the shed and arrange booked visits to get local people back in touch with their farming roots."

The future will also likely involve the shop moving out of the conservatory and expanding into another building on the farm. While having the shop in the house may have encroached on their space to some extent, there is no doubt that it has made it easier for them to combine minding the shop with looking after their baby Arran.

"Customers have loved coming in and seeing Arran. They've loved seeing him grow and getting to know us" says Amy

"It takes it away from being just a shop to being a family business." Bryce adds.

As well as selling through the farm shop Bryce has had interest from local shops, a cafe and a restaurant/hotel in stocking their milk and there are plans to sell through local farmers markets and to supply milk to a local artisan butter and cheese producer.

Bryce's determination not just to improve things for his family, but also to do so for the industry as a whole, have already lead to him coming into the public eye. Last year he was involved in organising "milk trolley challenge" protests - where a group of farmers bought up all the milk in several supermarkets in Ayr and Kilmarnock leading to TV appearances as the group's spokesperson. 

It was a bit surreal being on four BBC TV channels and three radio ones. At one point I was doing a radio interview over the phone when I came on the television! And all I did was organise for someone to go to a supermarket to buy some milk

In November Bryce found himself hitting the headlines again with an appearance on the cover of The Scottish Farmer reporting his plans to reduce his herd. The chosen headline though was not entirely accurate: "Young, gifted and gone"

Bryce's wife Amy recalls:

"I was working on the ward and for some reason someone had ordered The Scottish Farmer so it was sitting on the nurse's desk that morning, I walked past and I saw the headline and I was like What?' "

Bryce says:

"I could hardly sleep the night before because I knew what was going to happen the next day. I put a thing on Facebook to say it's half true'. I'm certainly not going anywhere but we will be taking a different direction."

"For all it was slightly wrong, it was quite good from an industry point of view. It was on the front page so it wasn't just farmers that were seeing it. Folk were walking into shops and seeing the headline so it actually brought attention to what was happening."

With the dairy industry no longer hitting the headlines as regularly as it was, does he think things have improved?

"If you take the dairy industry as a whole it probably is in a very slightly better position. There are certain supermarket contracts that now command a premium but it hasn't helped everyone. Those who don't supply to supermarket directly (many farmers supply a balancing pool) haven't seen the benefit."

The 'protests' (as well as other stunts including taking a red tractor down Buchannan Street in Glasgow) were certainly successful in raising awareness of the issue with the wider public.

"The public definitely backed it," says Bryce. "The other thing that came out of it was 'Morrison's Milk for Farmers.' We all thought it was a bit of a waste of time to start with but they keep running out of the milk, so it's shown that given the choice the public want to back farmers by paying more."

Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food & Environment, visited the farm last month and Prince Charles recently invited Bryce to be part of his Dairy Initiative held at Dumfries House.

"Farming was one of the last industries to be deregulated in the way it was," says Bryce, "I came from the motor trade which was deregulated in the eighties and that created havoc and hell but they realigned it and got through it. That's what farmers have to do as well. For the past twenty years in farming it's always been a case of producing milk for your milk buyer. It was never a mind-set of you're producing milk for a customer."

For Bryce, the skills learnt outside of farming have proved vital as he restructures the farm business to cut out the middle man and sell directly to the consumer: 

"It's not just a case of you're stuck with your milk contract and that's it. There are other options out there. But we wouldn't have a shop just now if I hadn't done what I did at Mercedes for ten years because I wouldn't have had the understanding of retail."

At his herd reduction last year a "good few cows" were bought by buyers in Ayrshire, with others heading as far North as Aberdeen and as far as south Liverpool. While in an ideal world Bryce may not have wanted to have had to reduce his herd, the level of interest shown in the cows is testament to the reputation and standing of the West Mossgiel breeding line. The work done by Bryce's father and grandfather before him with the herd and the farm have given him the opportunity to take over the family business and he is determined to give his son Arran the same opportunity.

"My main goal is to ensure the sustainability of the farm," says Bryce. "If that means we've got to change our income stream then so be it."

CKD Galbraith is employed as managing agent for Ballochmyle Estate.