She is a celebrated icon within the dairy industry, Mary Quicke has recently been honoured with the prestigious Cheese Industry Award. She talks to Emily Ashworth about her life in farming.
Aside from dairy farmer and pioneering cheesemaker, Mary Quicke has many other accolades.
In 2005 she was awarded an MBE for her services to farming; she won the Exceptional Contribution to Cheese at the World Cheese Awards 2015, as well as being a member of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, chairman of Devon County Agricultural Association and founder vice chairman of the Maize Growers Association.
To add to that, she is a regular surfer, has a degree in English Literature and, each month, writes an award-winning farm life column for Devon Life magazine.
There is nothing that seems to phase her, and it seems the more she is doing, the happier she is.
The 14th generation to farm at Home Farm, Exeter, and the fifth to make clothbound cheddar cheese, dairy farming is in her blood.
Since taking on the running of the farm in 1984, Mary has seen great change and has been instrumental in pushing the business forwards.
“My family have been on the farm for a while – we say from the 1540s,” she says.
“We were a dairy farm, with pigs and crops, and mum built the cheese dairy in 1973.
“With the cheese, we could feed the whey to feed the pigs. It was a classic South West farming system.
“In the early 2000s, we realised that with a 250-pig herd, we had to get bigger or get out and, sadly, we felt we’d not made enough money to reinvest.”
The family developed the cows and now have two block calved herds.
Running about 600 cows, the family were once known for their Friesan Holstein herd, and had one of the top herds in the country in the early ’90s.
She says: “We thought going for yields was what mattered, but we found the milk we had wasn’t good for cheese because there wasn’t enough grazed grass in it and our cost of production was too high.
“We sold out the best and cross bred the herd – that broke my dad’s heart, mind you.
“But we wanted more fertility, ability to graze and better milk for cheese.
“With the cross breeds, we have a very good health status and fertility, because we aren’t pushing them too hard.”
They concentrated on crossing New Zealand Frieisan’s with Swedish red and some Montbeliardes.
Now, their ethos is simple: ‘world class cheese, sold around the world with an excellence in farming’.
And it works, considering their annual production is 200 tonnes of cheese, and they export 40 per cent of their produce, mainly to America.
But it is not enough to rest on their name alone, and Mary is slightly concerned about the looming effect of Brexit.
“Threatened US trade tariffs, which are going to be as significant as Brexit and could mean 100 per cent trade tariffs on cheese worry me,” she says.
“We are going to spend more on sales and marketing on the grounds that there will be sales.
“But if those tariffs do come in, we think it could affect 50 per cent of sales of UK cheese to America and we’d like to be in that other 50 per cent. We will get that by shouting louder and selling harder.
“We sell a bit to Europe, but want to do more work in this country. And there will probably be a buy British thing going on if there is a messy Brexit.
“I don’t want us to have to be reliant on UK retailers, though.”
America has been a huge influence for Mary, who has been out to judge cheese for the past nine years.
Their clothbound farmstead cheddar, she says, is perfect for the US tradition of Thanksgiving, but more so, it gives her an opportunity to talk about the business to international markets.
She believes that in the UK farming industry, ‘there are such a lot of great stories to be told and I think we have got to shout about it’.
Aside from being appointed to the board of the Food Standards Agency, as well as AHDB, Mary has turned her attention to the environment.
“If we were to add 1 per cent of organic matter to the top layer of the land, that has the capacity to take out 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide,” says Mary.
“In that, you’ve got this massive opportunity for farming to make a huge contribution to climate change.”
But her passion has, and will always be for cheese, and her the latest acknowledgement, the Cheese Industry Award, is testament to a lifetime of dedicated work to the industry.
“I was absolutely blown away to have received this trophy,” she says.
“British cheese has boomed, so to be singled out as someone who has contributed to this movement is truly an honour. Great cheesemaking starts in the soft boundary between admiration and partnership with the land, and I’m delighted to see more and more artisan cheesemakers making wonderful cheeses from the ground up.
“It was great also to judge for the Young Cheesemonger Award, to see the passionate and knowledgeable young people coming on.
“The future is bright for British cheese and at Quicke’s, we’ll continue to be driven by the pursuit of great cheesemaking.”
So, what is next on the agenda?
In 2013, Mary began work on a new project, The Academy of Cheese, which officially launched in 2017.
It aims to promote cheese knowledge and provide career development, both within the industry and throughout the wider public.
“People in this country expect to buy cheese cheaply,” says Mary.
“At the moment, in the food service industry, money is lost on the cheese plate.
“Let’s do for cheese what has been done for wine.
“We’ve also secured a grant from the Frank Parkinson Agricultural Trust to create a library of British cheeses. It’s easy to get the European cheeses, but we feared British cheeses might get lost.”
Having been back on the farm since she was 29 years old, Mary says she feels incredibly ‘lucky to be a part of it’, and not just the ever-blooming business at home, but as part of the farming industry in general.
She says: “Food and farming in total makes up 14 per cent of the UK’s economy.
“I almost pinch myself every day to think how lucky I am to live in these beautiful places and make a food were proud of.”