By Dora Taylor
The British cheese industry was in deep crisis in March. As the Covid-19 lock-down closed restaurants and eliminated tourism, demand for artisanal cheese disappeared. However, farmers found innovative ways to serve a new, local customer base in Covid-safe ways, through contact-free cheese vending machines, variable portion sizes and mail order, with many even changing the type of cheese they were making.
Andy and Kathy Swinscoe run Courtyard Dairy, a cheesemonger in North Yorkshire specialising in small-scale, locally-made farmhouse cheeses. The Swinscoes have a unique overview of the ways in which different cheesemakers have changed the way they make and sell cheese.
With what Andy estimates to be 70% of Britain’s farmhouse cheeses ending up in high-end restaurantsSo when the lock-down began and the hospitality industry was forced to shut down, farmers and cheesemakers with large stocks of cheese found they suddenly had no buyers for their produce. All the while, their animals were continuing to produce milk.
Courtyard Dairy stocks around thirty locally made cheeses, and is the only route to market for many of the farmers whose cheeses it stocks, so the Swinscoes felt this pressure acutely. “We set up the Courtyard Dairy to support and champion small farms who make cheese,” Andy said. “We buy it and mature it here, to help link them to the market. We work with independent farms, and sometimes we take all of their stock. We will take it, and mature it, and sell it on to a range of restaurants.”
The particular difficulties facing cheesemakers and farmers arise from the long timelines and animal management involved in the craft. “A lot of our cheesemakers went from selling two hundred cheeses a week to about three or four. Farming is not something you can just put the brakes on,” Andy said. “You can’t furlough a cow. If you dry an animal off, you can’t just get it back into milk, you’ve got to think about how you’re managing the land for the winter feed, how you’re managing your land for the next five years, how you’re breeding your animals for the next five years. Nature continues on, and farming is managing nature.”
At the start of the lockdown, the scale of the problem seemed insurmountable. For many cheesemakers and mongers, the closure of the hospitality industry was a wake-up call, highlighting how reliant upon restaurants many farmers were. A few weeks into the national lock-down, Martin and Nicola Gott of St James Cheese found they had to stop making their award-winning soft, washed-rind ewes cheese which had always been stocked in Courtyard Dairy.
“Probably around 80% of our business is chefs,” Martin said. “We had a huge stock of cheese, and our customers were telling us that they had a huge stock of cheese too. It didn’t seem like we were going to be selling any more… down the usual routes.”
“This style of cheese doesn’t really end up in supermarkets,” Andy agreed. “Within about three days we lost 70% of our trade. This… cheese is sold mainly to restaurants and independent shops; that route to market went overnight.” In many cases, farmers determined not to waste cheese chose to give much away for free, to milkmen to include in their deliveries and to food banks and charities.
“The industry realised that we had to do something quick, otherwise a lot of cheese would have ended up in the bin,” Andy said. The Swinscoes’ connections to the numerous farmers whose cheese they stocked, and with other cheesemongers, was invaluable in this regard. “We work hand in hand with a lot of other cheesemongers, because the industry is so small, we try to help each other. As a group, we went to the food journalists and said you need to highlight this problem or you’re going to lose farmhouse cheesemakers who’ve been doing this for hundreds of years in their families.”
“It’s such an amazing industry, in that it’s very open,” Kathy Swinscoe said, “everyone wants to talk to each other, everyone’s helpful, always working together. For example, when Andy was trying to set up the mail order system, other cheesemakers who use mail order really helped us out.”
The growing voices of British cheesemakers caught national headlines, and a tipping point occurred when Neals Yard Dairy secured the support of Jamie Oliver, who used his platform to urge the British public to support their local cheesemakers. For Courtyard Dairy, online sales began to pick up, and people began to visit the shop again.
Many farms began to sell cheese directly to walk-up customers for the first time, and contact-free cheese vending machines were installed outside farms. “A lot of them have teamed up with their local butcher or local veg grower, and turned their maturation room into a temporary farm shop,” Andy said. “We are about 40-50% of where we would normally be, but we were down to about 10% at one stage. A lot of people have turned back to local.”
As the cheesemakers worked to get their voices heard, Martin and his team decided to take a different approach. “[A] lot of people were really struggling with massive stocks of soft cheese. We didn’t want to be another voice in that noise of saying ‘you need to buy our cheese.’ Just looking at the scale of the problem was so daunting, from our position in Cumbria the best thing we could do is take our cheese off the market. We could say, ‘don’t buy our cheese now, but maybe in six months buy it.’”
So, the Gotts stopped making their signature soft cheese, and began instead to produce a harder variety that requires a much longer storage time. “The finite life of St James is about twelve weeks,” Martin said. “We changed our production from making a semi-soft cheese that lasts a matter of weeks, to making a hard cheese that will last up to or beyond six months. We stopped making our core product overnight.” They named this new cheese Crookwheel.
Their rapid decision to completely change the kind of cheese they made allowed the Gotts, who farm and make their delicious cheese on Holker Farm, in the Lake District, to keep their sheep in milk and to keep making cheese. Apart from building an extra storeroom, which Martin admitted was incredibly tiring, making hard cheeses requires less work, which allowed Martin to furlough some of his staff.
In addition to these changes, when a goat-farmer friend of the Gotts decided to sell up at the start of the pandemic, the couple decided to take on their herd of goats. “I think they were as shocked as we were, but we had thought about taking on goats before. They were a ready-made herd, mid-lactation. They’re a mix between a more commercial breed and a Golden Guernsey. For some farmers a mix seems a bit of a nightmare, but we get some hybrid vigour.”
With the knowledge that they would be selling most of their stock later in the year, the team at St James Cheese had some breathing room which allowed them to adjust to the new style of selling, and new kinds of customers, as well as to start making some soft and hard goats cheeses. “In the midst of all the chaos, we’ve just carried on making cheese, and doing what we do,” Martin said. ”Although the world is in meltdown, on our farm in Cumbria, the grass still grows and we still make cheese everyday.”
Like the Swinscoes, Martin and Nicola have embraced the resurgence of the local market, and now that restaurants are open again, much of their cheese that would have last year been sold to restaurants, mostly in London, is now staying in the local area. “The orders at the minute—the most shocking are probably [from] the Lake District,” Martin said, “The place where we sell the least, typically, is the place where there is now the most growth, just because people are staying at home—staycationing—which is unusual. We’re not used to that being our biggest marketplace and we’ve never gone after that kind of business, just because we’ve always had a shortage of product to sell. Now we’re finding local restaurants and cafes in the Lakes, farm shops even. That’s quite positive, we will try and build on that.”
They are still experimenting with the cheese from their new goat herd, and Martin is excited. “I’ve every confidence that if the cheese is good it will find its home,” he said.
Although restaurants are now open, at the Courtyard Dairy, the Swinscoes want to keep selling to local customers. They have noticed a shift in public perceptions of the value of high quality food, with a growing concern about health and a desire to support British farmers.
“What it’s highlighted is that we should be selling this direct to the consumer. They should be using us in their weekly shop,” Andy said.
“We never wanted the shop to feel too elitist, we wanted to break down barriers and talk about where the cheese comes from,” Kathy explained. “It is more expensive than supermarket cheeses, but what is the real cost? If you buy from us, you are buying from a small family.”
Whilst hospitality is once again bustling, the changes that cheesemakers made during lockdown are likely to stick. “When you talk to people about what they’ve done, everyone’s got these crazy stories,” Martin said. “There are some really positive things. We’ve been able to say yes we should sell more locally, there are people who want this in the village next door. That interest, that confidence, that conversation has opened up.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/