Ice Cream of the Crop

Mango and banana smoothie1111.jpg
Most mass-produced pudding wouldn't know real, healthy, organic ingredients if it saw them. Laura Sevier meets the Finlays, who are putting the 'nice' back into ice cream

Conjure up an image of mint choc chip ice cream and the chances are, you’re picturing a light-green colour with brown flecks. But Cream o’Galloway’s mint choc chip is the colour of vanilla.

‘We only use natural ingredients with no added flavours or colours, so no green colouring for us!’ explains Wilma Finlay, who with her husband David, a farmer, set up the ice cream making business in 1992.

Based at Rainton farm in the rolling hills of Galloway, near the coast of south-west Scotland, the farm has 850 acres of rugged grassland that makes ideal grazing for the couple’s organically reared cows and sheep.

All the milk used in Cream o’Galloway ice cream is organic and comes from the Finlays’ own cows. At their small but prolific on-site factory – they produce 200,000 litres a year – ice cream is made the traditional way, with fresh milk, real cream and eggs, and using natural ingredients such as raspberries, honey or whisky for flavour. It’s the kind of ice cream you might make in your kitchen.

You’d think all ice cream would be made this way, but far from it. Much of the mass-produced gunk you find in a supermarket contains ingredients such as reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose syrup, vegetable fat, glucose fructose syrup, whey solids, artificial emulsifiers, stabilisers, colouring and flavouring. This ‘naughty but nice’ treat has strayed a long way from its roots.

By keeping its ingredients pure and simple, however, Cream o’Galloway has created an altogether more enticing and, by comparison, healthy ice cream that allows the flavours to speak for themselves – so the strawberry really does taste of strawberry.

The company makes 30 flavours, eight of which are entirely organic. ‘In the future we hope to convert the whole range to organic,’ says Wilma.

The Finlays source locally wherever possible – biscuits and cookie ingredients are from local bakeries – and last September branched into Fairtrade territory with their ‘Cream o’Galloway Made Fair’ range, also certified organic, which includes vanilla, strawberry pavlova, chocolate, cappuccino and two frozen-fruit smoothies. All sugar, vanilla, coffee and cocoa used in the range is from Fairtrade sources. ‘You almost need a whole department to deal with the paperwork,’ says Wilma, ‘but it is our aim that any new products in the range will be ethical and fairly traded.’

While Wilma is the driving force behind the ice cream business, David is the organic farming expert. His family have farmed the land at Rainton since 1927, and he took over the running of the farm 20 years ago.

‘For the first 10 years I intensified the farm, with 25 per cent more cattle and two and a half times as many sheep – with less employees,’ he says. ‘The amount of fertilisers, herbicides and vaccines I used doubled and the amount of antibiotics trebled. If there was a problem I hit it with a chemical.’

Like many farms in the late 80s and early 90s, however, Rainton had a tough time. Costs were going up and the Finlays were getting less income from their produce. ‘The value of lamb, beef and milk barely changed between 1985 and 1997,’ says David. ‘There was a huge pressure to intensify.’

Then came a complete change of direction. First, in 1992, they decided to start making ice cream, and then, in 1999, to go organic. ‘It took me two or three years to persuade David that organic was a good idea,’ says Wilma.

Initially reluctant, he was interested enough to try, in spite of the fact that his father, friends, colleagues and farm staff were against the idea. Now he is a big enthusiast. ‘We’re saving £35,000 a year on fertilisers and pharmaceuticals. We’ve reduced our stock numbers by 25 per cent so there is more space for each animal. Disease levels have dropped. Even if the whole thing goes pear-shaped I’d never go back to farming with chemicals,’ he says. ‘I want to understand nature, to work with it and not dominate it.’

Whereas David’s father (‘Grandpa Finlay’) spent most of his time trying to improve the farm’s agricultural productivity by draining, destroying habitats and chopping down trees, bushes and shrubs, all which was part of the farming philosophy of the time, David has done the opposite. He’s planted 75 acres of native species woodland (40,000 trees), created wetland habitats and dug three new ponds to encourage wildlife to thrive. ‘It’s so much more vibrant here, with sparrowhawks, buzzards, rooks and many species you’d normally only see in a nature reserve,’ he says. ‘Plus the animals get a much more mixed diet because there are plants and herbs to feed on that wouldn’t have grown when we used to spray everything.’

Now even Grandpa Finlay, aged 84 and still actively involved in the farm, is an organic fan. With 19 grandchildren, he worries about climate change and peak oil. He believes all farmers will have to learn how to farm without chemicals – and that there will be food shortages akin to what he experienced during World War II – or worse. Wilma and David have similar concerns, and are increasingly looking into renewable energy systems. The farm is already the site of a community-owned wind turbine and the Finlays are currently installing ground-source heat pumps.

Flavour of the month

More than merely a farm and an ice cream factory, the couple have transformed the site into a lively environmental education centre, popular with schoolchildren, tourists and locals. They have around 70,000 visitors each year and employ 17 permanent staff and an additional 35 seasonal. There are farm tours (Rainton is one of the Soil Association’s demonstration farms), ‘meet the lambs’ sessions, bat-spotting nights, Eco Fun Days, nature trails and an adventure playground. Farm buildings have been converted into a shop, an ice cream parlour and a ‘Burger Barn’, which serves burgers made from the dairy male cows. ‘There’s not much of a market for them, so most other people have them shot,’ says Wilma, ‘but we let them live up to three or more years till they beef out a bit. We call them the “burger boys”.’

The family won the BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year award in 2006 in recognition of their work on organic farming, education and diversification, and have won numerous other awards for contributions to tourism and the environment. Most recently Wilma herself was recognised with an MBE.

What does she most enjoy about running Cream o’Galloway? ‘Everyone expects me to say the tasting sessions, but for me it’s about having the independence to run your business following your principles. I find that so much more satisfying than having to implement corporate decisions that I don’t buy into.’

Other brands to try...

• Roskilly’s of Cornwall
Ice creams and frozen yoghurts made using the rich organic milk and cream from the Roskilly’s Jersey herd. The company makes many of its own ingredients, such as fresh fruit jams and fudge with no preservatives. Real fruit sorbets are made using the water from the farms spring.

September Organic Dairy
September Organic has been making ice cream for nearly two decades. It uses milk from a local herd of Jersey cows, double cream from selected herds of Friesian cows, eggs from a nearby farm and real ingredients such as local strawberries. Flavours include Elderflower Cream, Blackberry & Apple Crumble and Brown Bread.

Rocombe Organic
Made in Devon since 1987, Rocombe Organic was the first certified organic dairy ice cream to be produced in the UK. It uses local organic whole milk and cream to create ice creams that are 100 per cent natural and free of additives and stabilisers.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Food and Drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here


More from this author