Stepping away from the commodity dairy market, Alan and Jane Hewson resurrected a traditional regional cheese to create their own niche market. Aly Balsom finds out more.
In 2014, the star sprinter served them a selection of dishes made using cheese produced on their Midlands dairy farm as part of Channel 4’s Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
The appearance proved a significant turning point for the couple, with orders for their Colwick cheese flooding in just hours after the programme went on air.
Alan says: “It went out on air on the Friday and we had 60,000 hits on the website the next day. We usually get a handful a week. We didn’t really believe it and we got people ordering from one end of the country to the other. It completely overwhelmed us.”
As part of the programme, TV chef Jamie and farmer Jimmy visited the Hewsons’ Belvoir Ridge Creamery in Melton Mowbray, Nottinghamshire. Jamie then invited a number of local chefs to sample dishes using Colwick cheese to show them how local cheeses could be used in the region’s restaurants.
The Hewsons’ cheeses are now used by multiple farm shops and restaurants, predominantly in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
Alan and Jane are the only producers of Colwick cheese in the country, having resurrected the 17th century recipes.
Described as a mild, soft cream cheese, it is similar to a Ricotta and, along with Stilton, is one of only a few cheeses produced in Nottinghamshire.
Making such a unique product is part of the couple’s strategy to make more from less and is a completely different approach to the one used by the farm until 2000.
Until then, the farm had run a herd of 120 predominantly black and whites, yielding about 7,500 litres per cow per year, but the pair eventually became disillusioned with the Holsteins.
“The inputs were too high to maintain the black and whites and the milk price at the time wasn’t good enough to sustain the inputs. You were on a hamster wheel trying to produce a lot of milk, but you weren’t actually making any money.”
In 2000, the herd was dispersed and the couple set up a farm shop with a butchery and bakery.
Here they sold home-grown vegetables, beef from their small suckler herd of Aberdeen-Angus, Herefords and Simmentals, and lamb from a flock of 30-40 mixed breed ewes.
But as a self-proclaimed ‘cow man’, Alan eventually felt the pull back to dairy farming.
At the same time, the couple realised they had to adopt a completely different model to be successful second time round.
“If you want to do dairy farming, you’ll make it pay somehow. You have to be willing to change and you cannot just follow the line,” says Alan.
The pair had always run a handful of traditional dairy breeds in the milking herd and retained three Blue Albion cows and a couple of Jerseys to produce milk for personal consumption after the Holstein dispersal.
As a result, their thoughts turned to the possibility of milking rare breed cattle as a unique selling point.
“I’m quite passionate we don’t lose the milking genetics of traditional cattle,” says Alan.
They subsequently bought 30 milking Red Polls and began milk production in 2005. The herd is now made up of 50 cows, including three Kerrys and five Blue Albions.
The system took a while to evolve, with milk initially sold to local processor Long Clawson Dairy to produce Stilton.
The decision to try a cheese-making course while on holiday in Scotland sparked an interest for Alan and Jane to have a go at producing their own cheese.
After a couple of years of ‘dabbling’ for personal consumption in their farmhouse kitchen, things took off on a commercial scale following interest from Matthew O’Callaghan who runs the Artisan Cheese Fair at Melton Mowbray.
“He approached us about making Colwick cheese and resurrecting the Nottinghamshire cheese. It was the answer to making it on a commercial scale.”
A small room was built on the side of the dairy and they began using about 50 litres of milk a week to make the cheese.
Their major launch was at the Cheese Fair in 2014 where the they won the best stand prize. It was this win which instigated the interest from Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
Prior to the TV appearance, the pair had recognised growing demand for their product and applied for a grant to develop a new building for cheese processing.
Then, once their meeting with Usain Bolt was show, demand spiked, so much so they were quickly using 800 litres of their milk a week for cheesemaking.
Alan and Jane realised they were surfing a crest of a wave, so after an initial 18-month boost, a dip in sales instigated the decision to develop other cheeses.
They now also make a Camembert type cheese called Rutland Slipcote and a red Cheddar style called Ironstone.
Long Clawson Dairy had always been supportive of the Hewsons, but as more of the farm’s relatively small volume of milk production went into home-produced cheese it became less economical for the dairy to pick up milk from the farm. As a result, both businesses mutually agreed to cease the arrangement in 2015.
Belvoir Ridge now sells pasteurised milk through a vending machine and some raw milk and cheese via an on-site fridge next to the dairy (see panel). The farm shop shut due to staffing reasons, together with the Hewson’s decision to focus on cheese.
Despite the variable changes to the business, their marketing message of ‘Keeping rare breeds milking’ has been key to its growth.
Recently, the Hewsons have also chosen to develop their brand further by signing up as a pilot dairy for the Pasture for Life scheme. To use this logo farms must graze their cows when grass is available and feed a forage-based diet in winter. Livestock cannot be fed maize, soya or grain.
The model fits well with their current system, where cows are already fed a forage diet and no concentrate.
“The diet suits the herd and also meets growing consumer interest surrounding whether cattle go to grass.
“It suits the Red Poll cow. If you put them on a total mixed ration, they’d just get fat. It’s the same with the Albions and Kerrys, they suit a forage system,” he says.
Although not certified as organic, the farm is run on organic principles using composted farmyard manure from loose housing instead of artificial fertiliser.
Cows are fed a winter diet of hay, quality grass silage and rock salt in the parlour. All the farm’s grassland is planted with herbal mixes, including cocksfoot, Timothy, meadow fescue, plantain, yarrow, red clover and chicory.
Alan believes this works well with the farm’s dry land.
Sourcing rare breed genetics is one of the main challenges for the Hewsons, who believe they run the largest herd of milking Red Polls in the country.
As a predominantly beef breed, Alan and Jane have worked particularly hard to develop their herd of 40 milking cows over the last decade.
Alan says: “The amount of dairy Red Polls is diminishing. There are a lot of Red Poll cattle, but less in the dairy line. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve udders and milking quality.”
The Red Poll is a Victorian cross between a Norfolk Red and a Suffolk Dun. Alan says there are milk records for bulls from the 1960s but not many for the bulls of today, so he has been sourcing semen from older bulls and breeding his own.
The farm’s current Red Poll bull is home-bred, out of the farm’s best milking cow for milk fat and protein.
His breeding policy is proving successful, gaining interest from farmers with beef Red Polls looking to use his genetics to boost the milkiness of their sucklers.
Sourcing Blue Albions is even more of a challenge. This dual-purpose breed originates from Derbyshire and is thought to have come from the Welsh Black. The Hewsons’ stock bull, Jonas was bought as a three week old from Suzannah Garrett.
Blue Albion and Kerry semen, an Irish dairy breed, is also sourced from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
After putting such a lot of time and effort into keeping these rare breeds milking, the next challenge for the Hewsons is to develop some kind of succession plan as they have no-one interested in taking on the business.
They are keen to find an enthusiastic young person who is as passionate about about their breeding policy, milking rare breeds and continuing to make the cheese as they are.
“We’re now looking for somebody to continue what we’re doing. The cheese component is a big thing as we’ve researched old recipes and it would be nice for someone to keep this going as we’ve put so much effort into bringing it back.
It would be nice to get some youth and enthusiasm in to keep the cheese and the Red Polls going.”