Producing the UK’s first and only 100 per cent grass-fed cheese is not the only thing separating Lye Cross Farm from its competitors. Lauren Dean finds out more.
Cheesemaking has been the backbone of Lye Cross Farm since the 1950s when Peter Alvis’ grandfather set up business with his brother.
Peter and his brother Johnny still farm using the same system, with the cows producing the milk for the cheese, and the whey used to feed pigs.
The manure from the pigs then goes back onto crops to feed the cows.
When Peter’s grandfather started farming there were about 120 farms in the South West running a similar system.
Now there are only two or three.
Peter says: “The cow really is the mother of the business. We are farming three dairy farms.
“One of those is organic, and two are conventional. The cheese is definitely the driver of the business as far as turnover and that sort of thing.”
The family takes in about 42 million litres of milk a year from its own cows and from other local farmers, producing roughly 4,500 tonnes of cheese a year.
It covers all ranges of milk, from non-GMO, kosher, conventional, organic, and organic produced without antibiotics for specialist cheeses for the United States.
It is the organic side which has helped boost business, but it has not come without its challenges.
Peter says: “It is like anything; cheese has gone through cycles, with good times and bad times.
“The dissolution of the milk board was a real challenge for us because we were such a small operator. We are still small in the grand scheme of things, but that was a really difficult time.”
The family started producing organic cheese in 1992, making them, he says, ‘probably the first people into organic cheesemaking’.
Today they have a new focus on the US market for their specialist cheeses.
“Looking at the market changes and adapting to those is really important,” he says.
“For instance, in the US, there is a lot of talk about non-GM and organic without antibiotics because their organic standards are slightly different to ours.
“To be able to put cheese into their market we have to farm to their standards. We have a couple of farmers who can farm to US standards in the UK and they don’t feed any concentrates or wheat or maize. It is purely a grass-fed system.”
US organic standards state an animal can never be treated with antibiotics in its life, whereas regulations in the UK allow an animal to be treated so long as an extended withdrawal period is adhered to before it goes back into the system.
In the US, once an animal has been treated with antibiotics, it either goes into a conventional herd or out of the milking system.
Peter says: “It means the product we are producing now is 100 per cent grass-fed and produced without antibiotics and this is quite a big market attraction. We are pushing this quite hard at the moment.”
Sales and marketing director Ben Hutchins says one of the challenges of going antibiotic-free is maintaining animal welfare standards.
He says: “[Antibiotic-free] farms are pretty low-density and I don’t think they struggle too much with mastitis because of the way they farm.
“Grass-fed in the US is a hugely growing market.”
Another challenge with people labelling products coming from the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland, for example, is the perception all cows are on grass, so must be grass-fed.
“But how much of their diet is grass? We decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right,” Ben says.
“Our cheese is 100 per cent grass-fed. The cows are not fed anything else. We are certified by an independent body. It comes in, audits the farms and the processes to make sure the right milk goes into the right cheese.
“Our product is probably the only one in the US – certainly the only one in the UK – with certified grass-fed, animal welfare-approved, no-antibiotic use cheese.
“On top of this, you have cows living a fairly stress-free life, whereas in the US you have huge sheds and 10,000 cows who have never seen the light – or even any grass. It is unnatural and not very nice.”
And the business believes that in the world of carbon control, low-density grass farming is a carbon absorber, rather than a carbon emitter.
Lye Cross Farm only represents about 1-1.5 per cent of the UK cheese market and the family wanted to find a niche market to get away from the competitive nature of the four big UK retailers and what it called a ‘pretty consolidated market’.
Ben says: “You’ve got four massive retailers and then the secondary retailers are all still pretty big. There are not many options to sell in the UK.
“You then have a consolidated customer base. The big are getting bigger and the big retailers want to talk to those big companies.
“What we want to do in the UK is try and carve out some sort of niche, so we are not competing head-on.
“We saw grass-fed organic as an opportunity in the US, but also one we know we can transfer to different markets.”
Lye Cross Farm’s grass-fed organic cheese is just about to launch in the UK.
“We are starting to engage with some organic retailers and I expect we’ll get the product out in the next month or so,” Ben says.
“We are then going to review the proposition and look at these health claims, the carbon capture and everything else so we can decide exactly how to go about it.”
But the appeal is also about the surrounding story.
Peter says: “We are only seven miles from Cheddar itself, so the provenance, the family history, the location and everything else is a really good story.
“When you are trying to sell a premium product into an export market, you need the whole of the history and the story and the handmade nature of the products.
“This allows you access to those markets and develop those areas. If we can do this and therefore add more value to the product, this has to be the sensible way forward.”
The handmade nature of the products is still a huge part of the farm too. The farm is still hand-producing ‘in the same way that if you are making bread, you knead the dough’.
The texture of the curd is developed by turning and stacking it by hand.
“There are probably only about one or two others of our size doing it,” Peter says.
Hinting towards upcoming trends, packaging and sustainability are a key focus for the team.
They are working towards 100 per cent recyclable materials for the cheese packaging which, although not currently available, is in development.
Peter says: “The thing is we have to be flexible and quick to adapt.”
One final point he makes is the need for quality and high-skilled staff to pick up the jobs in specific skill-sectors.
He says: “One of the key things is I have some really good people working with me to be able to deliver the business as a whole. And it is really important to employ people in skill sectors who are far better than you in those skills.
“Once you get your mind around that and employ the right people to come in and do the jobs you really are not good at then it makes life a lot easier and it is good for these guys because they know they have got the ability to drive things and make a positive change in the business.”