Photograph by Angus D. Birditt
The monumental support for the British farmhouse cheese industry has been truly epic. Over the last several months, we have seen cheesemakers, cheesemongers, writers, experts, institutions, Jamie Oliver, and even the Prince of Wales, working as one to help save many of the nation’s farmhouse and artisan cheeses. However, as with anything it seems, where one issue is solved another one arises. As we head further into the unknown depths of 2020, with the initial shock of saving our cheeses behind us, experts are now saying the farmhouse industry is moving into a more dangerous phase, one which will need another wave of support - this time a sustained support - from a nation to save many of our farmhouse and artisan cheeses, and with that our food heritage.
Photograph by Halen Môn
We have already seen the farmhouse cheese industry call to arms a nation to buy its huge surplus of cheese that would have been destined for the bin, yet now, lines the bellies of thousands of contented people across the British Isles. According to experts in the industry, this was just the first phase of a series of potential problematic phases arising for the British farmhouse cheese industry since the lockdown in March. I spoke to Neal's Yard Dairy's Director, Jason Hinds, about the last few months and the next decisive phase in the farmhouse cheese industry. Jason describes the situation the industry is now heading into as, “The end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.” The rally within the industry, and Neal's Yard Dairy’s partnership with Jamie Oliver promoting their ‘Save British Cheese’ boxes, can be seen as a triumph, but that was just a start, and now the industry is looking towards the next 'sustain' phase, specifically the months leading up to Christmas, which will arguably be more crucial than the first 'save' phase in keeping many of the industry’s farmhouse and artisan cheeses afloat. Neal's Yard Dairy and Jamie Oliver are collaborating once more, this time with a new initiative 'Buy British Cheese' subscription boxes, which encourages the nation to sign up to a 6-month or 3-month subscription box to eat more cheese that will really help these cheesemakers over the next few months.
Photograph by Harry Darby
"...it’s been remarkable to hear the feedback from so many of those new customers eating proper farmhouse cheese for the first time..."
Jason says, “A lot has happened since we last spoke in March. In business terms, the period we have seen recently has been truly Darwinian, where many businesses have sadly been taken out by no fault of their own, but perhaps as a business, being weaker than others. We have seen some powerful things coming out of the first phase; saving many great cheeses, we have widened the audience to the farmhouse cheese industry, plus it’s been remarkable to hear the feedback from so many of those new customers eating proper farmhouse cheese for the first time, it’s been unbelievable really. However this period is over, and still the farmhouse cheese industry is nowhere near safe. We are moving into the middle phase, and the more dangerous phase, where cheese businesses are going to find the next six months leading up to Christmas very difficult.” What’s going to make matters worse is that over the next few months, those hospitality businesses that would normally buy farmhouse cheeses in sizable portions – those pubs, restaurants and hotels – will still be shut, and for many of them, it’ll probably be well into 2021 before we see them opening their doors to any audience, socially-distanced or not.
“Even if those businesses are open and buying our cheeses, whether that’s via ecommerce or export, the volumes of cheese being bought will be considerably less. Just think, we won’t be seeing the same numbers of people going back to the restaurants or hotels in a flash, are we?” This poses problems for all of those involved in the farmhouse cheese industry, and particularly for those at the bottom, the farmers and the makers. “It’s a domino effect; even if the restaurants open, they will be buying less, retailers will be selling less cheese, which will mean buying less from the makers, and those makers will either have a surplus of cheese again, or simply have to make less, which will impact their businesses greatly. For example, many will have a reduced income but their overheads costs will remain fixed. "There’ll be a cash flow crunch."
Photograph by Angus D. Birditt
"If you want to keep these farms and traditional methods of cheesemaking alive, then the public need to make buying farmhouse cheese part of their routine..."
“Now is a bigger challenge than the last three months, we’ll just have to adapt and pivot again to a new normal..."
This begs the question for all cheesemakers, but particularly those who are farmhouse cheesemakers with farms to run as well. Farming is a cycle, and it cannot stop. It’s obvious to say, and they all need a cash flow to survive. It also raises added problems for those cheese businesses that have recently borrowed money to invest in their growth, either to build larger premises or more equipment to upscale their cheese production. Jason says, “Now is a bigger challenge than the last three months, we’ll just have to adapt and pivot again to a new normal, selling less cheese. As we did before, our industry will work together to the next point, Christmas. We all need to reach that milestone working together until the hospitality industry - one of the largest employers in the country – will be back to some sort of level before lockdown.”
Another impending problem is for those cheesemakers who stopped production in the last few months for an extended period of time. Many of them, who have only recently started making cheese again, will have to await their fate in a few weeks when they are waiting for their cheeses to age. The concern of stopping production can be heard from Joe Schneider from Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire, “The last few months have been a roller coaster. In early March, we stopped production, furloughed all employees, and sold almost no cheese for 3 weeks. We only started making again in mid-May, which is great for the farm and us, but we will now have a 9-week hole. So say, come July or August, we will run out of ripe cheese, and we will have a tough 6-8 weeks as we wait for the cheeses to mature, but during that time we will also still have to buy lots of milk, pay full staff costs and the rent, but we will have nothing to sell, no income.”
Hear from the following cheesemakers and cheesemongers in the British Isles, who over the last months, have been working hard to save their industry, and who pledge a nation’s sustained support to buy their farmhouse cheeses:
Andy Swinscoe, from The Courtyard Dairy “It’s been very hard over the last few months. We are still about 50% of where we would be. It was great to see the initial support of the massive drop off in trade, and our profile being raised to help boost our mail order to take up the slack, but it is still a way off where it needs to be and is slowing down as people return to normal routine. It’s very important we try and keep the support going. We are seeing our support petering out. Supporting good quality food needs to be a continuous thing, not just a one off.
If you want to keep these farms and traditional methods of cheesemaking alive, then the public need to make buying farmhouse cheese part of their routine - it's worth it for the flavour, but it has multiple other benefits too - more ethical and sustainable farming, greater food security, keeping rural areas vibrant, keeping alive part of our social history and culture. If we loose it, it will be much harder to resurrect it. Farming just cannot stop, you can't furlough a cow!”
Martin Gott, St. James “It’s been mixed for us really. Our stall in Altringham is busier, but we have had to stop producing our soft cheese. Not making that cheese has opened up some time for us to refine our farming activities, but we really need to get restaurants open again to see ourselves getting back to the levels before lockdown, perhaps next year at the earliest. One upside is that we have channelled our milk to make our hard cheese Crookwheel that will extend our sales window till March or April next year. We have also recently taken in Innes Cheese’s 130 goats – once belonging to Highfields Farm Dairy, which sadly had to stop making their famous soft lactic cheeses – to start a new hard cheese called Holbrook, named after Mary Holbrook.
I think once The Courtyard Dairy gets back to normal sales again, we’ll recover - I hope customers will go there first. If you have a choice between the small-scale retailer that are stocking good quality artisan cheese (cheese shops, delis, farmhouse) or direct from the producer, I’d choose the retailer – we need them to be thriving for us to keep going.”
Joe Schneider, Stichelton Dairy “It’s very important to keep up the support. We need to sell cheese every day to stay in business, so we need people to remain committed on spending their hard earned money in a place where it will make a real difference to the people who run small cheesemaking farm businesses. The work is hard and the margins small, we sometimes feel vulnerable to the vagaries of market forces, regulations and farming troubles at the best of times, even more so now.”
Julie Cheyney, St. Jude “The shock was pretty much instant, I furloughed my one worker immediately, I stopped making cheese and spent the first three weeks trying to sell the cheese that I had sitting in the ripening rooms. By the second month sales were flying as people found different ways to sell and the customers were kindly taking up ‘artisanal cheese box’ offers. I learned that those of my cheese connections who have helped me have really come from businesses, large and small, who are family run or orientated. They are businesses that are run by people empowered to help each other.
To support us, please visit local shops, village shops. Support online sales from sites that sell farmhouse or artisanal cheeses. When markets open again, please visit the local farmer’s market!”
Billy Kevan, Colston Bassett “As a result of the control measures in March, 70% of our usual sales stopped instantly. The way forward for us was, of course, to sell our stock and minimise wastage, initially this was driven by online sales, which was well supported by customers being isolated. After the panic buying, retail settled down and sales there are now very strong. We started making cheese again in May, after a 10-week break in production. This 10-week break in production has given rise to other problems but at least we have avoided wasting product.
History tells us that artisanal farmhouse cheese making is a fragile industry, the UK has slowly been rediscovering quality cheese thought to have been lost thanks to mass production, the current pandemic has put this revival at risk, we must support these makers and pass their knowledge on.”
Photograph by Angus D. Birditt
"I think people are appreciating artisan more than ever at the moment and it’s great that the public have recognised the importance of supporting small producers."
Jake Wigmore, Village Maid Dairy “It’s difficult to categorise the past few months into positives and negatives, it’s been a period of adaptation and learning for sure! It was horrible being faced with potentially letting staff go, but thankfully due to the government furlough scheme we didn’t lose anyone and have now brought all of our staff back to their original working hours.
It’s really important to keep the industry at the strength it is now. I think people are appreciating artisan more than ever at the moment and it’s great that the public have recognised the importance of supporting small producers, particularly in a crisis like this. Dairy farming isn’t something that can be turned on and off like a machine, it’s a natural cycle that needs to be maintained. I think the importance of local community support has been evident. When lockdown started we had an overwhelming number of local people and outlets reaching out to us to help sell the excess cheese we’d made. We really hope the support continues!”
Tim, Lincolnshire Poacher “It’s not ideal, but it could be worse. Our sales are around 70% of where we were before lockdown. Our major problem is that we were not able sell any milk in April, and the milk price for May and June was terrible, so we have been making cheese 7-days a week. To mitigate the problem, for 3 of the 7 production days each week, we have been making a much higher scalded cheese with a finer cut, which goes drier and more alpine – heading towards a parmesan / poacher hybrid. Most importantly these cheeses will not be ready for another three years by which time we will hopefully be a better situation.
We need the public to support us. It is critical because without it we would lose a hugely important part of British food culture and heritage. We have learnt to adapt quickly, or you’re in trouble. Also, try to ensure that you have got a wide range of customers and income streams so you’re not over dependent on anything. Buy and enjoy British artisan cheese – cheese is for life not just for Christmas!”
Martin Moyden, Moyden’s Cheese “Whilst losing most of our business overnight, we had recently taken on a weekly spot at our local indoor market, which gave us a shop front and quickly turned out to be the main part of our business as we had little other routes to market as most of our customers were pubs and restaurants. We had to push our blue cheese sales hard, whilst our hard cheeses could carry on maturing.
It’s so important to keep supporting farmhouse cheeses, whether its goats, cows, sheep or buffalo, their milk continues to flow, and right now is at it’s best quality of the year. These milks can make really interesting, flavourful, health-giving cheeses that reflect their provenance, and which keeps things from being boring homogenised stuff, and who wants that! As well as, that it keeps family farms and cheesemakers in business, so they can keep doing what they do best and if we have learnt anything from this pandemic it’s that we need to pay greater attention to food, how its made and where it comes from.”
Jonny Crickmore, Fen Farm Dairy
"I am a little worried to tell the truth. We have ridden this wave of initial support, which has been fantastic but we mustn’t forget that support is still needed. For us, 70% of our sales go to restaurants, so we are worried about whether the restaurants will come back as normal, or perhaps not come back at all!
As the restaurants begin to open, we need to support them as much as we can; the more people go out to restaurants, the more they buy our cheeses. We all just have to do our bit, basically eat lovely food! We’ll do more on our social media pages about promoting the awareness of restaurants. Over the last 20 years, the artisan food industry has grown and grown, and now we need to save it."
How can we sustain our support for British farmhouse cheese?
Where and when we can, keep buying local, farmhouse cheese over the next few months from independent retailers and direct from producers. What can be said for the farmhouse cheese industry is that you are not just buying cheese, you are helping people, families, traditions, jobs and a rural economy. Jason Hinds notes that British cheese survives on the back of it’s own high standards. “What is keeping us alive is the quality of our product. British farmhouse and artisan cheese has become a top quality product, something that needs to be cherished and sustained.” Andy Swinscoe from The Courtyard Dairy has recently published ‘Six Reasons Why We All Should Support British farmhouse cheese’, which are noted below. Andy makes another good point, “Buy farmhouse cheese, and look out for raw milk, natural or cloth rinds and the identities of where and who makes the cheese. The word 'farm' isn't protected and is used by many factory producers. So buy cheese from your local independent cheesemonger, farm shop or online.” The latter, which is something that is notably reiterated by many of the cheesemakers themselves, is to buy from independent retailers to keep the whole industry sustained. “That's the best thing we can all do.”
‘Six Reasons Why We All Should Support British farmhouse cheese’ from The Courtyard Dairy:
1. Food Security – essentially creating a small-scale food system, adding values to the industry.
2. Environment-friendly and sustainable – less intensive farming and traditional methods contribute to a more sustainable future.
3. Britain’s food culture and social history – keeping knowledge, craft and skills handed down.
4. Maintaining the renaissance – sustaining the resurgence of farmhouse cheese, not undoing the last 15 years of hard work and innovation.
5. Farms simply cannot ‘moth-ball’– production cannot stop, feed needs to be grown for winter, animals to be milked, and the land to be worked.
6. Support the rural economy – cheese businesses add value to the local economy, providing jobs and economic stimulus in an area.
Order your cheeses here:
Neal’s Yard Dairy
www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk | 020 7500 7520
New Market Dairy
www.newmarketdairy.com | 07736 514872
Paxton & Whitfield
www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk | 01451 823460
Paul & Sarah Appleby
www.applebysdairy.com | 01948 840221
Padfield family, Bath Soft Cheese Company
parkfarm.co.uk | 01225 331601
Carwyn Adams, Caws Cenarth Cheese
www.cawscenarth.co.uk | 01239 710432
Carrie Rimes, Cosyn Cymru
Jonny Crickmore, Fen Farm Dairy
www.fenfarmdairy.co.uk | 01986 892350
Marcus Fergusson, Felthams Farm
www.felthamsfarm.com | 01963 370857
Mark Hardy, High Weald Dairy
www.highwealddairy.co.uk | 01825 791636
Simon & Tim Jones, Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese
lincolnshirepoachercheese.com | 01507 466987
Martin Moyden, Moyden’s Cheese
www.moydenscheese.co.uk | 01630 639796
Mary Quicke, Quicke’s Cheese
www.quickes.co.uk | 01392 851222
Rennet & Rind Cheesemongers
www.rennetandrind.co.uk | 01480 831112
Sherdians Cheesemongers IRE
www.sheridanscheesemongers.com | +353 46 924 5110
Joe Schneider, Stichelton Dairy
www.stichelton.co.uk | 01623 844883
Martin Gott, St James Cheese
www.stjamescheese.co.uk | 015395 59309
Julie Cheyney, St. Jude Cheese
www.stjudecheese.com | 07771618385
Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy
www.thecourtyarddairy.co.uk | 01729 823291
Julianna Sedli, The Old Cheese Room
www.theoldcheeseroom.com | 07531 060936
Todd & Maugan Trethowan, Trethowan Brothers
www.trethowanbrothers.com | 01934 835984
Jake Wigmore, Village Maid Cheese
www.villagemaidcheese.co.uk | 0118 988 4564
Peter Humphries, White Lake Cheese
www.whitelake.co.uk | 01749 831527
Jonathan & Annabelle Crump, Single Gloucester
Sustaining British Farmhouse Cheese
Words & Photographs by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles
Photographs where credited by Harry Darby