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No cheesemaker was immune to the impacts of Covid-19. When the pandemic struck, producers had to adapt to a volatile and unpredictable market overnight. Tim Jones, the maker of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese, tells Speciality Food that for the first time ever, pallets of cheese were sent back to the farm as the economy came to a grinding halt, and milk produced on the dairy farm went unsold for three months. “We were suddenly faced with either throwing [the milk] away or turning into cheese that we didn’t know we were going to be able to sell,” he explains.
But like so many other cheesemakers, Tim sought to turn a challenge into an opportunity. The team shifted from producing five days a week to seven, and embarked on an experiment to create a new cheese, Poacher 50, which was slower maturing. “We just wanted to kick the problem down the line, because we didn’t know what the future was going to look like,” he says.
More than a year on from those early days of the pandemic, there is still uncertainty in the market which producers must navigate. But many businesses have responded as Lincolnshire Poacher did – through innovation and experimentation. “As a company, we’ve learned not to be blinkered by strategy,” explains Jessica Kimber-Holloway, commercial operations director at Godminster. “This year required the team to think more broadly about company survival. It meant we had to pull on each of the team’s strengths in order for us to make it through those first few rocky weeks when nobody really knew what was happening – it created a more empowered workforce who are confident in their job and the strength of the team around them.”
Plus, being small has its upsides. “The benefit of being a small company was that we could be really agile about how we responded to the situation,” Jessica says. This forward-thinking mentality helped many small cheesemakers seize onto new opportunities. “In early 2020, we were actually planning to reduce our gifting range to focus on some key SKUs, but after the surge in online gifting we actually found ourselves increasing our offering to invent ways to supply fresh demands across our customer base,” Jessica explains.
There have also been opportunities online. Catherine Mead, chair of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and owner of Lynher Dairies in Cornwall, sought to get her products to customers through new routes and found success with e-commerce. “Online became quite a significant route to market for cheesemakers, who until that point, probably hadn’t engaged in that much.” Through new modes of working, Catherine says cheesemakers found new ways to engage with customers. “Covid has brought us closer to our customers,” she says. “We are talking directly to our customers, and we’re not just talking to them about buying cheese, we’re talking to them about how we produce cheese, and the reason for buying British speciality as opposed to some of the products they may have been buying previously.”
This newfound interest in speciality cheeses is driving more and more customers to the sector, and as restaurants, exports and events all begin to open at the same time, many cheesemakers are actually worrying about demand outpacing supplies. “I haven’t spoken to a cheesemaker who is not very, very busy at the moment,” Catherine says. “And it’s looking like it’s going to be a very big summer for us.”
Alison Williamson, the maker of Whyte Wytch, an unpasteurised, soft bloomy white rind cheese, has also experienced strong uptake, and she believes a time will come soon when her microdairy is unable to meet the growing demand from consumers. A bit of lucky timing has helped bolster her business – Alison opened her dairy in March 2021, just when the lockdown reopening began. “The first weekend of opening, I sold so much cheese because everybody wanted to spend, and it was their first weekend out.” While that has since slowed somewhat, she remains positive about the opportunities for growth. “I’m really optimistic. I think people are wanting to shop local and get fresh produce.”
Not every producer has been so lucky. When the pandemic struck, Gary Bradshaw of Hamm Tun had just moved to a new premises and was excited about expansion. But Covid-19 flipped everything on its head. “Our small, artisan business has been built on the hospitality sector, so closures due to Covid pretty much closed our business,” he explains. “We were running at about 5% of usual sales during the lockdown.”
And things still aren’t quite straightforward for the business even as the industry moves towards recovery. “The hardest aspect is building stock as the investment is significant when the business is not there. We can spend on making the cheese and not realise a penny for four to six months. This made getting ready for the world reopening a real struggle,” Gary said. Although he remains in survival mode, a successful crowdfunding campaign helped raise awareness and prove that demand is strong. “This was a massive boost because we ended up getting some very good new customers from the exposure.”
Hamm Tun is far from the only maker finding challenges in the Covid recovery. “The uncertainty is quite difficult when you’re running a business that’s working two years in advance,” Tim says of Lincolnshire Poacher. “I’m making cheese now for 2023, and nobody can confidently say they know what the world’s going to look like and what their sales are going to be, so we’re constantly rejigging our estimates.
“But,” he adds, “we’re lucky we’re in an industry that people are suddenly really interested in.” And this changing mindset plays into the trends that Tim and other cheesemakers are hoping will evolve into longer-term habits. “People are more interested in taking the time to look into what they’re eating, and I think that will continue to some degree. So we’re very optimistic about the future.”
Today, many cheesemakers are facing a bright future after a challenging lockdown period, thanks to a public that’s more engaged than ever in artisan cheese. “During lockdown, we kept ourselves incredibly busy developing new products for the Godminster range,” Jessica says. “As we emerge out of the pandemic we’re now launching our new products into a market that is revitalised and renewed after all the lockdown stagnation.”
After adapting to massively disruptive market forces, Catherine says cheesemakers must not lose their momentum but continue to show their resilience. “We’ve demonstrated through the last 18 months how agile and flexible we are as a sector.” Now, cheesemakers can turn this energy to other challenges facing the sector, such as boosting sustainability. “The biggest threat and the biggest opportunity for cheesemakers lies in our approach to the environment and climate change mitigation. If we sit on our hands and ignore it and hope it goes away, we will fail,” Catherine says. “We lay ourselves very, very open to criticism because it’s well documented that there are areas of our businesses that have significant carbon impacts. However, I think we have two tasks. The first task is to understand where our big carbon deficits are. Where are the areas where we can affect the greatest level of change? And then, against that, we also need to better understand how we contribute, because we are positive contributors, particularly those of us who are farming.
“I think we have so many opportunities that are really there and available to us now, like no-till farming, widening one’s hedges, diversity of grasses and species, water conservation and renewable energy. We can be the masters of our own destiny in looking at sustainable food, and we must all of us embrace that fully and believe in it and get behind it,” she says.
The industry has shown that there are real reasons to look to the future with positivity, not least of which is consumers’ newfound support for farmhouse cheese. “We saw the British public rally around homegrown British cheese during lockdown, and we know that passion won’t go away,” Jessica says. “With increasing awareness of how Brexit will impact cheesemakers now as well, we’re optimistic that the public will continue to recognise how brilliant and diverse British cheese is and remain loyal.”