Many people used lockdown to try a little amateur gardening, or a basic recipe for banana bread, at a push. Not so for George Crossley, who used it as a chance to create a whole new market for his father’s oats and launch what is quite possibly the UK’s first British-grown oat milk.
“From my point of view, I want to create a better market for my dad’s oats,” says Crossley, founder of kitchen start-up oat milk brand, Toats Mylk. Although currently on hiatus, Crossley began making milk using oats from his parents’ farm at a friend’s suggestion about a year ago, using a beer-making vessel to “heat and mix” and experimenting with different recipes. But it took the arrival of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, to prompt them to begin the business: selling British-grown oat milk in refillable glass bottles to local people around Falmouth in Cornwall.
“We started at the beginning of lockdown. I didn’t think our recipe was quite ready but in supermarkets you could only buy three items and people didn’t want to go shopping so delivery seemed like a good idea,” said Crossley, who describes demand in the first three weeks as “crazy”.
Crossley, who completed a Level 2 food safety and hygiene course and registered the business with the local council for inspection purposes, has now returned to the family farm in Hampshire for a long-planned takeover from his father, and from where he plans to continue production soon. He is not currently producing or delivering any oat milk to allow time to settle in, but hopes to be back delivering by the end of the year.
While converting the land to organic over a period of three years, Crossley said he will re-start oat milk production from the farm itself, and take on the whole process from growing, de-hulling, malting, milling and finally, processing the oats into oat milk. He plans to build up a new customer base in Portsmouth, Southsea and London, as well as begin bulk deliveries to cafés, to offer them a better price through refillable containers.
“With Oatly, they [cafés] pay way over the price of cow’s milk and, therefore, they can’t mark it up as much and they’re not making any money. My aim is to sell in bulk up to 20 litres, in refillable containers,” he says. “The farming is going to be pretty full on and all encompassing, but I need to find local markets for small volumes of crops, so we’re not selling into the commodity market like we have to now.”
Sustainable farming was a major reason behind why Crossley began Toats, after seeing first-hand how selling oats and grains into the commodity market, where the vast majority of British-grown arable crops end up, leaves small farms at the mercy of fluctuating grain prices and huge input costs.
“Oatly were food scientists creating milk for lactose intolerant people. Rather than coming at it from the consumer’s point of view, I approach it from the side of the producer. In the UK, we grow oats, and they’re abundant. But you can only sell them at 14p per kg. A kg of oat milk is worth about ten times that, so the producer loses out,” he says.
“The current farming system can leave you really vulnerable, where the farmer is tied into this loop that they can’t escape, using more and more fertiliser to increase yields and cover the risk of a bad year, or the price of grain going down.”
Oats are a resilient crop for British farmers, explains Crossley, who says: “They don’t take too much out of the soil, and they can grow quite well organically, too.”
In Falmouth, he began sourcing from local farmer Will Radmore, whose company Cornish Golden Grains produces heritage cereal flour for bakers, and, Crossley says, kindly de-hulled and milled small quantities of oats, ready to turn into milk.
Toats is made by mixing this oatmeal with water, encouraging enzyme activity, and adding a little oil and salt to enable the all-important smooth mixing into coffee. “We’ve also been experimenting with adding a little seaweed, which helps stop it separating, and with malting and toasting oats, as well as natural nutritional enhancements,” he says. Another key aspect was the refillable glass bottles, as a deliberate alternative to the often non-recyclable Tetra Pak bottles used on most dairy-free milks.
In Falmouth, Crossley says “the public’s enthusiasm for the product made low volumes worthwhile”. Once he expanded, with the help of a housemate, to making two large batches a week, the company was breaking even and reached a capacity of 70 bottles a week. But, he says, lessons have been learnt ahead of the second launch: he’s invested in a bigger mixing vat and says more space on the farm will enable bigger volumes to be made.
While reaching full capacity within five weeks might be sign enough of the demand for plant milks that address packaging concerns as well as dairy alternatives, there is ample quantitative evidence to boot. According to the trade magazine the Grocer, the plant milk market is now worth £420 million in the UK and is seeing growth of around 25 per cent.
And as for the name, a play on ‘totally’ and oats, it has school playground slang to thank. Says Crossley: “‘Totes’ was a word we used all the time at school – ‘it’s totes amazing’ and I was just like, ‘that’ll do’.”
This article was initially published in the Autumn print issue of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.