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We’re all facing challenges during these unprecedented times. Whilst many independent food brands and retailers are overhauling their business models to adapt to the current climate, some producers are relying on support from others to not only keep their businesses afloat, but to keep their industry alive.
With the hospitality sector at a stand-still, farmers’ markets on hold, and special events cancelled for the foreseeable future, generations of British cheesemakers are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. Naturally, animals are still producing milk and cheesemakers continue to do what they do best, but with demand dwindling, many are being forced to throw away perfectly good wheels, blocks and barrels.
But as we’ve been seeing throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, this time of crisis has seen those in the fine food and drink sector rally to show their support.
Family-run Northern food retailer Booths was the latest to launch a campaign in support of British artisan cheesemakers. It came after the company heard about the plight of Graham Kirkham, one of the last makers of farmhouse Lancashire cheese in the country. Overnight, Graham lost 60% of his markets, and went from selling two tonnes of cheese per week to just nine whole cheeses.
Booths’ campaign aims to push artisan British cheeses into the spotlight, and encourage shoppers to buy more speciality selections made by producers like Graham.
A part of history
British cheeses and cheesemakers are a vital part of the nation’s food heritage.
“The very core of our countryside, from its dry-stone walls to copses of hazel, is shaped by our culture of farming,” Juliet Harbutt, cheese consultant, told us. “It is not, however, a glamorous or easy life, especially if you have a dairy herd. And maybe in the last month or so, as we have had time to think of what is important in life, while still enjoying the fruits of the soil, we’ve also realised just how important food producers really are.
Creating high-quality British cheese is a fine art, but the very nature of its production is also what puts the industry at risk during the Coronavirus crisis. As Juliet explained, all but a handful of English cheeses are made by just one cheesemaker, compared to five to 10 in Europe. What’s more, livestock can’t exactly be furloughed.
Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy added, “Farmers still need to farm – you can’t simply ‘mothball a farm’: feed needs to be made for the winter, the land managed, animals looked after and milked. Farm cheese keeps money and jobs in rural communities, and is part of our social history and food culture. During rationing in the 40s and 50s, many farm cheeses completely died out: we went from 146 unpasteurised Wensleydale farm makers to one; from 202 Lancashire farm cheesemakers to seven… We don’t want to lose that knowledge again!”
From farms to cheese lovers
Campaigns like Booths’ are vital for keeping the cheesemaking industry alive in the UK, and in encouraging customers to buy local produce. Whilst cheesemakers are still producing the cheese, they’re relying on cheesemongers, delis, farm shops and other food retailers to push their products out to customers and keep the supply chain flowing.
For Paxton & Whitfield, an existing online platform put them in good stead to do just that: “[Online] sales have increased hugely as people stay at home and prefer to rely on food deliveries,” Ros Windsor, managing director of Paxton & Whitfield, told us. “This has meant that we’ve been able to keep some money coming in and continue to support the artisan British cheese industry. Artisan British cheesemakers are having a very difficult time, and we need to back them to keep this vibrant and fantastic industry going.”
Support from all sides has been vital for The Courtyard Dairy: “Without the support from the cheesemakers promoting us online and other cheesemongers giving us advice, I don’t think we’d still be trading,” Andy said. “Keep getting the message out about the importance of farm cheese, that we’re still open and keen to get good food out to people!”
Companies like Slate are keen to do their bit, too: “We recognise the part we can play in sustaining the cheese industry that we love,” says co-owner Clare Jackson. “It’s vitally important that we support the flow of cheese along the supply chain from farms to cheese lovers. Animals are still producing milk and beautiful cheese is still maturing in cheese rooms across the country. We’re working with a number of local producers who have ripe and delicious cheese that needs to reach customers.”
Beyond the industry
The support doesn’t stop within the cheese industry itself. Recent promotions from Jamie Oliver and Neal’s Yard Dairy saw the launch of a social media campaign calling on the public to support artisan cheesemakers during the current crisis. Many food delivery businesses are approaching cheesemongers in order to offer artisan cheese selections for their customers for the first time. Paxton & Whitfield is even working with customers who are hosting online cheese and wine tasting sessions via Zoom. What’s more, the upcoming Big Cheese Weekender will see a virtual celebration of British cheese from 8th-10th May. Led by the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, Academy of Cheese, and Guild of Fine Food, the event will help to put a spotlight on the nation’s independent cheesemakers.
For producers like Graham, these seemingly small steps will make a huge difference: “Please support us, your small, unique food producers. Otherwise, all those nice treats you’ve enjoyed won’t be here because we won’t be around to make them. We started making cheese in 1978; before that my grandma, my mum’s mum, made it all her life.
“This very necessary shut-down is tough for lots of businesses, but it’s a particularly challenging time on a farm. We have lots of outgoings from seed to youngstock, and spring is a very busy and expensive time on the farm. Farming never takes a break. Farmhouse cheesemakers need wider markets to keep going and keep going we will – but now’s a good time to enjoy and support artisan cheesemakers.