Imagine the founders of a new plant-based milk company and you might not be too far off the mark with Rich Eckersley and Dan Dawson.
The duo behind ReRooted, the Totnes-based plant-milk company, could easily be mistaken for east London hipsters, with the requisite ‘man buns’, plaid shirt and ethical outlook not out of place on Shoreditch High Street.
The pair (Dawson a former chef, Eckersley the founder of Totnes’ much-loved zero waste shop and former professional footballer) set up ReRooted in response to two frustrations with the burgeoning plant milk offering.
As a consumer of plant milks with an interest in provenance, Eckersley called up the mainstream brands to ask where it was made, only to find they were mass produced in factories in Europe, with no link back to the supply chain at all.
Secondly, the Tetrapak casing for many of these milks is complex, made with various different materials. While they are ostensibly designed for recycling, the pair realised these bottles were more likely to end up in landfill, than successfully passing through the fragmented and unfit-for-purpose UK recycling system.
Fast-forward six months and ReRooted was in business: organic plant milks made by hand out of a unit on an industrial estate just outside Totnes, and sold in reusable glass bottles, which the company collects when empty, sterilises and then re-uses up to 20 times.
Thanks to a new supply contract with organic veg box company Riverford, which had been searching for an organic and ethical plant milk supplier for months, ReRooted is poised for expansion, having already began delivering locally via an electric van-turned-milk wagon.
One criticism often levelled at plant milks involves their reliance on monoculture crops, and huge demand on water, particularly the almond orchards of California – a very different farming system to the small-scale organic almond orchards in the southern Mediterranean.
As such, provenance is a huge part of the story at ReRooted, and the pair say they “know where everything comes from, all of the time”.
Ingredients are sourced from ethical wholesaler Infinity Foods, and the ReRooted range of two plant milks so far includes almonds (from Italy and Spain), coconut (from Sri Lanka or the Philippines), and sweetened by dates from Turkey. An oat milk (organic oats sourced from Europe) is in testing stages and due for release shortly.
The inside of their tiny unit looks almost like a mini food laboratory. On the whiteboard are lists of intricate recipes, calculations and combinations that make up the secret formulas to ReRooted’s milks.
Shiny, gleaming kitchen machinery, funnels, pipes and blenders line the walls, where ingredients are roasted, blitzed, pressed, mixed again, adjusted for flavour, then pumped through pipes and pasteurised.
“We bottle it first and then the milk is raised to 72 degrees and held there for 30 minutes,” explains Dawson. “We do a lower level of pasteurisation than other manufacturers to retain nutrients and flavour,” he says, adding that they are currently making up to 300 litres of plant milk a week.
It comes at a time when the message around dairy, and other ruminant animal products like beef, are intense, and often conflicting.
Eat less dairy and meat to reduce carbon footprint, proclaims one camp, including many eminent scientists, while the farming industry fights to demonstrate the value of mixed farming systems, with livestock, particularly in the UK, playing an important role in fertilisation.
“We don’t feel that the effect conventional dairy farming practices have on cows and their young is justified by the production of, what we see as, foods which can easily be replaced by more ethical alternatives,” says Dawson, who calls himself an ‘conscious consumer’, while Eckersley himself is a vegan.
In ReRooted’s home county, Devon, where small mixed farms are the only ones flexible enough to deal with the rolling landscape and wet soils, the debate and role of livestock is particularly pertinent. How do farmers fit within their vision of a plant-based future?
“We believe that the role of farmers needs to be one that prioritises low impact, organic methods of food production, which invigorate (rather than diminish) biodiversity and soil health, and respect the habitats of wild animals,” continues Dawson.
“Our perspective is strongly in support of the vegan movement, as it is clear to us that a drastic overall reduction in meat and dairy consumption is essential. However for those of us who do choose to eat meat and dairy, we feel that it is important to redress the balance and implement a mostly plant-based diet, with the animal products taking their place as high quality, high welfare luxuries, in order to take the pressure off meat and dairy farmers to produce ever larger quantities of ever cheaper food.”
Diversification around what food is produced, and an openness to embrace regenerative farming methods and changing consumer trends, could also help this sustainable transition, he adds.
The reasons around eating no, or fewer, animal products are of course manifold, and Dawson and Eckersley are quick to point out that they’re not aiming to solve all problems.
The nutrient capacity, for example, is one of the strongest arguments for the intake of traditional dairy products, especially when it comes to children.
“The major nutrient people talk about in cow’s milk is calcium,” says Eckersley. “But we have the perspective that you don’t really need to source calcium from our milk.”
Dawson adds: “It’s a mineral that cows get from the ground, so you can go straight to the source, with things like leafy greens.
“We haven’t focused on these milks being nutritional supplements, and it wasn’t about putting health claims on there.
“They serve an ecological purpose. We wanted to make milks with things you can find in the kitchen, so things like dates, whole foods that have nutritional benefits, and keeping the processing levels down.”
There are big plans for the future – the pair have already been approached by investors, but say if, and when, they accept funding, they will continue to make their own milks, and would ultimately like to expand into a ‘factory’ in the south west.
“Once established, we want to become involved in regenerative projects, such as rewilding and permaculture,” says Dawson. “It’s not just a plant-based business, it’s more of a movement.”