Meet some of Britain’s most ethical cheesemakers

18 February 2024, 10:39 AM
  • Artisan cheesemakers in the UK are increasingly transforming the way they work to minimise their impact on the environment while making a difference to the landscape around them. Speciality Food reports
Meet some of Britain’s most ethical cheesemakers

As he slices into a chunk of Ivy’s Reserve, the world’s first carbon neutral cheese, Richard Clothier, managing director of Wyke Farms, can’t help but feel a sense of pride. Named for his grandmother, who had a deep love for the countryside, the cheese, and the way it is made, in many ways sets the benchmark for how British dairy could look in the future.

“My grandparents didn’t waste anything,” Richard says. “They believed if you look after nature, nature will look after you. We very much follow those guidelines.” Wyke Farms is just one of many cheesemaking businesses refusing to rest on its laurels where the environment is concerned.

It was the first national food brand to use 100% sustainable energy, and the first dairy in the UK to achieve the Carbon Trust’s triple standard.

Richard, who calls himself a modern practical environmentalist, hopes what they’ve achieved will inspire others. “Renewable energy, farming regeneratively, planting more trees, creating wildlife corridors – all these things are scalable. There are always things that can be done to make sure that every year that goes by we produce in an environmentally sensitive way. It’s like food safety, and health and safety – this just has to be a given.”

It’s not just ethical credentials and a strong moral compass that have pushed the business in this direction – it’s consumers. Richard says he’s seeing rising interest – particularly from the Asian market - around sustainability and Scope 1 and 2 emissions, as has Jane Quicke at Quicke’s, who says she has certainly noticed an uptick in conversations around the topic with customers.

Quicke’s is similarly committed to doing things the right way throughout the chain. “What we do is very much connected, and part of our story,” Jane explains, agreeing with Richard that now is the time to act in dairy, particularly with regards to managing and monitoring soil health, which is central to the narrative in modern farming.

“If you are farming over a long time – maybe 100 years,” Jane explains, “there will be an environmental cost if you’re not using sustainable practices. You can only do that for so long before you get into a situation where you have to put so much back into the soil artifically.”

While there are no hard and fast regulations currently for regenerative farming, it’s certainly become a buzzword in the industry, and Quicke’s is committed to following its guidelines as closely as possible, with Jane adding that working this way is for the commercially-minded, as well as for those who care about the land. “It makes sense, especially as input costs are high for fertiliser and feed. You want to be as low input as possible on your farm, using nature in balance with your farming practice.”

Working in harmony with the land is second nature for the Temple family in Norfolk, makers of Copy’s Cloud and Binham Blue. Catherine Temple says she and her husband have invested every penny they have into measures that protect the environment, and they’re keen to link up with other farmers who want to change for the better.

For them, working in a more sustainable way became a necessity when they inherited the farm 20 years ago. “We were in an economy where every time wool, grain and soya prices changed, farming was devastated. We wanted to make ourselves into a homegrown, circular economy because it protected our staff, and us, from global fluctuations in prices.”

Soil health and grass are things Catherine spends an enormous amount of time thinking about, but she says she’s not alone. “Across the industry people are recognising the threat of climate change and the benefits of regenerative farming.” The climate of Britain, she adds, is perfectly suited to growing grass, “and grassland is a very carbon sequestering system.”

We need to get more fungus and bacteria back into the soil, Catherine continues. “This permanent grassland is like the forest floor. It is a hive of biodiversity, and grazing animals on pasture is a recognised tool in carbon sequestration and climate mitigation. Research is showing that it’s good, and people are moving to it because it is helping them to play their part.”

A new way of working

Moving away from monoculture, and enriching fields with a multitude of flowers, grasses and herbs, is one of the ways farmers can make a positive environmental contribution, says Jane. At Quicke’s, beans and oats are companion cropped, and the results speak for themselves. “The cool thing is beans, as a legume, help fix nitrogen in the soil, and they do that at the point in the growth of the oats when they need nitrogen. It means we’re not depleting the soil in that timeline,” she adds proudly.

Quicke’s has permanent pasture across a lot of the farm and that’s “great for developing a really healthy root base in our fields, preventing wash off, and increasing the soil’s organic matter.” In summer months there’s typically more grass on the fields than the cows can eat. This is gathered for sileage, reducing feed costs during the cooler months. “There’s a lot of interest in the kinds of cheese you can make with sileage-fed cows,” says Jane. “What they eat has a huge impact on flavour, and you can notice the difference when cows gain on grass versus hay versus sileage. Having that control across everything means you know exactly what they’ve eaten and can say ‘this is how we need to make the cheese’.”

Cows are rotated every 12 hours in the fields at Quicke’s. This has the dually positive effect of ensuring maximum nutrition for the animals, while leaving enough time for the land to recover and flourish once again.

Other sustainability highlights include that half the farm is woodland (with 84% of carbon sequestered here), and that a field’s worth of solar panels have been put in.

The Quicke family’s hope is to reach net zero, through the initiatives already in place, and future investment, with investigation going on currently into Bennamann’s methane-capture system.

Homegrown food and lower inputs are high on Catherine Temple’s list – but she too is looking to the next phase of her environmental mission. At Copy’s Green Farm cover crops, such as low intervention lucerne and field beans, fix nitrogen in the soil, while providing nutrition for the cows. “A new thing we’re doing,” she says, “is we’re maybe going to start roasting the beans. Someone has done experiments that showed if you roast them, it makes them more nutritious. It’s a win-win. If the cattle can get more out of the beans, they will need to eat less.”

Also, while an anaerobic digestor on the farm helps manage waste and generate energy, Catherine is researching using leftover whey from cheesemaking to make a spirit – as others (including Isle of Mull Cheese) have done. Not only is it a more profitable way of processing whey, but the waste product from the distilling process makes great fertiliser, she says.

“We’re just trying to get the best use out of the farm, and to give back to the land. Since World War II we’ve thrown fertiliser at everything to get as much as possible out of the land. Now we’re reverting to ways where we are encouraging the soil microbiome to give us a share of what it’s got, without stripping it down. Diversity is very important.”

David and Wilma Finlay of The Ethical Dairy say it took 10 years for them to see the benefits of going organic and using agroecological practices. But it was worth it to see the marked difference a decade on – particularly regarding soil health and productivity. “It was responding to the lack of pesticides and fertilisers, and we began getting the kind of yields we’d experienced with fertilisers and pesticides previously,” David explains.

Their measures are, David says, stacking up. A recent audit found diversity had increased by 50% on the farm, from 150 to more than 230 species – including the discovery of a rare five-eyed medicinal leech, which caused a stir amongst entomologists. “We’ve got about 88 species of pond life, bugs and beasties, which is quite remarkable,” he adds.

One of the most critical revivals is of dung beetles, which David calls the ‘unsung heroes’ of regenerative agriculture. “They came back here because we stopped treatments for parasites in livestock management. We managed the parasites out of the system by understanding lifecycles and working with nature.”

In addition to a gentler way of farming, The Ethical Dairy has an anaerobic digestor, which processes organic farm waste to produce energy (as well as effective natural fertilisers and soil conditioners), 95% of the cows’ diet is grown on-farm, and over the past two and a half decades the family have planted around 35,000 mixed broadleaf trees, which contribute to Rainton Farm being recognised as carbon positive.

Wyke Farms is also a net positive business, says Richard. All of the 150 farmers it works with are footprinted and incentivised to produce milk in a more sustainable way and, “some of them have the lowest carbon footprint farms in the world producing milk!”

Creating Ivy’s Reserve was, he adds, very much about laying down the gauntlet in the industry. A lot of time was spent working with the Carbon Trust on the product. “We learnt just so much from them about emissions, and what we can do to manage them.”

Wyke Farms’ first demonstratable move into upping its game where sustainability is concerned, was a decade ago, when it committed to producing all its own energy. “All our products are made and packed using 100% energy we produce through anaerobic digestion, and surplus green gas we clean up and put back into the grid,” says Richard.

“We focus wherever we can on minimising waste,” he adds, revealing the business takes in and processes waste apple pomace from cider farms, and bread waste from supermarkets, as well as recycling and recovering 90% of water using in its manufacturing process.

Leading where others can follow

Cheesemakers who’ve made the shift to using more sustainable methods are vocal about wanting to share their learnings with others, to help the UK travel further in the right direction.

Though it’s difficult to change your style of farming overnight, says Jane, the industry is “great because people share ideas very freely. There’s lots of working groups you can join, and farm walks are fantastic. A lot of farmers are doing amazing things behind the scenes. They are always looking at what they are doing, trying to find the best ideas, and new ideas to work in more sustainable ways, and more commercially viable ways.”

Agrotech and digital transformation are of ever-increasing interest. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t understand it,” Jane adds, saying this is a particular field where collaboration and information sharing is key. “We’re using technology to augment what we do and improve the way we understand our own farm. That is going to be essential for improvement going forward.”

Catherine encourages other farmers to use their land to diversify as much as possible, seeking out cover crops that enrich the soil, encourage nature, and even help reduce fuel costs. “Our drivers tell me when they are sitting on the tractors they can feel them using less fuel because the soil has been opened up by the roots of the crop that’s grown over winter. For someone to tell me, without prompting, that the soil feels better, is a big move. They have been very cynical about what we’re doing, but are acknowledging the way we do things is better!”

It takes patience, though, adds David, saying, “I think I would have given up in the early years. You will make mistakes, and it will take time for your soil to recover without losing productivity. In the old days you’d put on fertiliser, and a week later the fields would be green – you could see the impact. Now it can take months and years before you see the benefits of the system trying to work.” Your team have to be fully behind your vision, David says, but, “we wouldn’t do this any other way now.”

Groundwork needed in policy

For cheesemaking to continue to make inroads where sustainability is concerned, support and guidance is desperately needed from government and policy makers – especially assurances for businesses that have already cemented their eco vision.

Jane says she’s seen a big focus on environmental programmes from government, but that it can be difficult for early adopters, such as Quicke’s, to access initiatives, many of which appear to be aimed at land conversion. “It feels like you’re only being rewarded for new things you’re doing. Almost like a punishment for people who’ve been doing things for good for a long time.”

Jane would also like to see more ready access to scientific papers for farmers and cheesemakers. “I wish they weren’t behind a paywall. It’s difficult, often, to see the outcomes from some research, or sometimes only other people in research can access the information.” She is frustrated by what she feels is an assumption that farmers don’t want to be engaged in cutting-edge science. “A lot of farmers have come back to farming after other things, or have grown up in farming, gone off to do a degree, and brought it back with them. I have a degree in biology, and I’m really interested in the science that underpins farming.”

Catherine is concerned food security isn’t being taken seriously enough in the UK, saying she thinks ELMS (the Environmental Land Management scheme) lacks understanding of farmers’ commitment to feeding the nation. “A lot of farmers view themselves as food producers. There’s lots of things we would like to adopt, but we’re waiting to make investment when the government tells us what they want us to invest in.” 

She says she feels farmers like herself are ‘hanging on’ and getting on with the business of rewilding. “We want the government to get on and commit to something. We have so many arguments here about the green agenda, and spending money on it, but then, next year there might be a grant for certain things, we just don’t know.” Waiting on policy decisions has, Catherine adds, created a lot of unhappiness amongst the farming community, who are, she says, dedicated to and ready to grow food in ever more sustainable ways.

Food security is something both Richard and Jane also feel incredibly strongly about. “It might not be palatable for people to see food production happening in the UK,” Jane says. “Reforesting is very wonderful, but we should have the ability to say we want food to be produced here with good sustainable practices. We, as a country, don’t get that choice. We need to be realistic about that means.”

“We need government support for the environmental mission to help farmers produce food in a net zero, carbon neutral way,” adds Richard. “The conservation plans we adopt should be integrated into the growing systems because we’re going to need more food over the next 20 years than we’ve ever produced.” 

These systems, he says, should reach beyond being carbon neutral, taking into account clean water, slow water, managing run-off and flooding, and soil health. More incentives are required across the board to boost both food security and energy security, Richard says passionately, adding that it’s better for everyone. “Farming more regeneratively, with less input, has the potential to make dairy farms more financially robust. It’s an exciting part of sustainability. Wherever we lower carbon, we lower the cost for everyone.”

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