Nelson-based Oaklands has growing consumer demand for its fresh milk, all sourced from cows with the double A2 protein gene and bottled in glass not plastic. Its Aunt Jean’s Dairy brand – now firmly established in the domestic market’s boutique milks category – is distributed to both Foodstuffs and Countdown from North Auckland to Ashburton in the south.
This is a business reared by farmers Julian and Cathy Raine, and their son, Tom, who returned three years ago with wife Hannah to take on “vat-to-supermarket shelf” management of the Oaklands and Aunt Jean's product ranges. The Raine family and, in earlier days the Saxtons, have been dairying at Stoke, on Nelson’s outskirts, for over 90 years.
The off-farm growth started in 2012 after Fonterra stopped collection from the Raines - the only year-round, “town milk supply” farm in this locality - during the 90-day winter period. Julian and Cathy had seen first-hand how European dairies sold through self-serve vending machines used by consumers who supplied and filled their own bottles. They decided to try the model around Nelson with their own non-homogenised fresh product.
“People loved the milk so much that we found local cafes were filling up containers for their own business use,” says Tom. “That gave us a light-bulb moment, why not bottle the milk ourselves and sell to consumers more widely?” From there, the Raines expanded their pasteurising plant on the home property at Stoke to enable the bottling there, and started some serious thinking about consumer brands. They bred the A2 gene across each of their herds - the family also owns a dairy unit at Taparewa - and adopted less intense farming practices.
Herd sizes were reduced, synthetic fertilisers and imported feed supplements were phased out, and all calves kept on the farms to become herd replacements or dairy beef cattle. They also moved to once-a-day milking. “We are not organically-certified, but we apply ethical principles and natural farming methods, and that is really appreciated by our customers,” says Tom. Other farmers have moved in the same direction, and today Oaklands is also supplied from a third, privately-owned local property. Its tanker makes a daily run between the three farms.
Tom says recyclable glass bottles are integral to Oaklands’ more-sustainable approach to fresh milk production and supply. Some of the 1 litre bottles are sold by home delivery agents in Nelson and Blenheim, harking back to the days when most Kiwi suburbs had a daily visit from their local “milky”. There are still seven vending machines in and around Nelson, and Oaklands-branded bottles of milk are also sold at some corner dairies or supplied to the food service trade.
Further afield, Oaklands is known by the Aunt Jean’s brand on its bottles of whole or light (fat-reduced) milk as found on the shelves of around 80 supermarkets. The company joined GS1 in 2017 to support its burgeoning relationships with Foodstuffs and Countdown, and Tom says the product is being sold around the South Island only a day after milking, pasteurising and bottling. In the North, the timeframe is no more than three days. “It’s a great feeling to see our product supplied around the country, knowing it has been bottled on our own farm.”
Tom says the Raines are thinking ahead to a possible range of creams, butters and cheeses based on the same farming operations, although there are no firm plans yet. And, he says, Oaklands has support from Fonterra which continues to pick up any surplus milk from the farm when spring arrives.