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In 2022, it might feel a bit like we’re out of the frying pan and into the fire. The last two years have been a challenging time for the UK’s cheese sector. Covid caused issues with staff shortages due to illness, a country in sporadic lockdowns and a reduced footfall in towns and cities across the country. If the cheese sector learned anything from these tough times, it’s how to be resilient.
And so, as we find ourselves in a cost of living crisis in 2022, it’s best foot forward for cheesemakers, cheesemongers and distributors. But it isn’t easy. In some ways we might feel like we’ve been here before and we’re battle hardened, but this time around the fight is different.
“I’m generally a positive person but we’re being hit on all sides,” says Clare Jackson from Slate Cheese in Suffolk. “It started around the Easter break. We noticed then that people are buying smaller pieces of cheese. Customers used to ask us to cut a decent wedge, but now they ask for it to be sliced to what they can afford.
“We’ve started cutting the cheese paper to smaller pieces as we just don’t need the larger sheets of cheese paper we used to use.” The cost of living crisis is a multi-pronged problem and it’s affecting businesses country-wide.
Jen Grimstone-Jones from The Pangbourne Cheese shop in Reading is also feeling the heat. There are things that can be done to mitigate the costs a little, as Jen explains, but this firefighting is still difficult. “We are seeing price increases across the board. Everything is going up in price on an almost weekly basis.
“We have seen rises in the costs of utility supplies as well as fuel. We are fairly lucky with our own deliveries as we have an electric van which is charged using solar energy, but any orders that we send out by courier are subject to higher courier fees as well as the cost of the packaging etc.”
The Covid factor
There’s some strong evidence that the issues presented by covid have shifted, if not completely gone away. The cheese sector made a solid recovery from covid and The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board‘s findings paint a promising picture. Overall retail dairy sales volumes for the full year 2022 are expected to be down versus 2021 but up slightly versus 2019, + 6% for cheese. This means the sector is doing better than it was before the pandemic.
For Clare Jackson the problems brought on by covid have just about been resolved and in fact covid did bring some benefits to their small town in Suffolk which is reliant on tourism. The rise in staycations during the summer of covid meant more tourists in the town, which meant more people browsing the shops and buying more. “We make most of our money in the summer months,” Clare explains.
“The autumn is always a lull in sales and then it picks up for Christmas, but we have to make enough through summer to see us through.” During Covid times this wasn’t a problem as UK tourism was booming, but the stark difference between last year and this year, due to the cost of living crisis, is worrying. “A reduced footfall in the town is detrimental to our business,” Clare says.