Dairy farmer says creating cheese business was ‘hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives’
PUBLISHED: 07:09 23 July 2019 | UPDATED: 08:10 23 July 2019
Kat Mager Photography/Fen Farm Dairy
A dairy farmer who set up a cheese venture when his business was in the doldrums says the move had opened up a ‘world of possibilities’.
Jonny Crickmore, of Bungay, who launched the farm diversification in order to shield the business from low milk prices says it's now going "terrifyingly well", with 20 staff employed in his growing business.
He is the third generation of his family to farm the land at Fen Farm, along with his father Graham.
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Since the 1960s, the farm had been a traditional dairy farm, selling milk to the large industry milk processors, at commodity market prices. The UK milk industry - and his business - was in the doldrums. But in 2012, while in the depths of the milk crisis, he launched Baron Bigod Brie.
The farm's raw milk diversification
Baron Bigod is the UK's only raw milk brie style cheese, and the farm also produces Bungay raw butter, raw buttermilk and raw milk.
The diversification came about because the family was dissatisfied at being at the mercy of commodity prices, which were often lower than the cost of production.
"We began to experiment with selling our own raw milk, direct to customers, from a small cow-print garden shed at the farm gate," he said.
"We started with 10 bottles of milk in a fridge with an honesty box. Within a month demand was so high that we had outgrown our fridge, so we invested in the UK's first farm-gate raw milk vending machine.
"We were soon selling 200 litres of milk a day to customers who came to refill their own milk bottles at the vending machine."
UK's first raw milk brie
The success of the venture - and welcome cashflow - spurred the Crickmores on to add further value to their milk, by making the UK's first raw milk brie and later, raw cultured butter and buttermilk, and they have since gone on to win a clutch of national and international awards.
They include this year's Food and Farming Excellence awards title at the East Anglian Daily Times' Suffolk Business Awards, in which they took second place overall.
But it's been tough
"Diversifying our farm business has been that hardest thing we have ever done in our lives. When you manufacture and market your own products, the buck stops at you, every time. There are no weekends or down-time in the early stages," says Jonny.
"But it gets better and we have not done it alone. We have achieved everything with the help of our astounding team of people and we have also sought the advice and support of other cheesemakers, cheesemongers and business mentors along the way."
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The motivations were clear: in the early 2010s, the British dairy industry was struggling, with supermarkets using milk as a loss-leader and farmers finding the only way to control their bottom line was to squeeze production costs further and further.
Others less lucky
"Many went out of business altogether and those like us who stayed in mostly did so because they were running the farm as a family and not paying themselves a proper salary," says Jonny.
"Then one day, we woke up. We decided that we were sick of hearing ourselves moaning about the milk price. It didn't fit with our personalities to just suck it up and do nothing to help ourselves, so we got the paint pots out and started painting the garden shed, to make our first farm shop."
Opening up new possibilities
Diversifying has completely transformed their lives, he says.
"It has opened up a whole world of possibilities that would not have been open to us previously. It has allowed us to employ a team of 20 local people - and growing - to travel, to meet new people, to interact with a diverse range of other businesses. It has also transformed our farm into a sustainable and profitable enterprise which can give back to the local community."
He would encourage to go the same route, but advises them to choose something they love "because you will have to eat, think, live and breathe it constantly until you have grown the business to a point where it can run smoothly without you".
Carbon-neutral farm goal
The focus now is on becoming a carbon neutral dairy farm.
"We are already using solar power and heat exchange systems and natural pasture, and we have other exciting developments in the pipeline for the near future," he says.
Balancing the business with family time is the hardest challenge. "I'm sure we're not alone in this. We have also chosen to diversify into some pioneering areas that have not been done before in the UK. As a result, there has been a lot of trial and error along the way and a little help from some kindly French cheesemakers."
The business is going "terrifyingly well, which is the very best outcome we could wish for, although keeping up with it can be a challenge", says Jonny.
The Crickmores' newest venture is its "old cow" and whey-fed beef.
"This is an exciting project which we've had up our sleeves for some time now," he says.
"We are launching the beef of our retired dairy cows and bullocks, which will be fattened on the waste whey and skimmed milk from our cheese and butter making. The whey-fed meat is proving to be delicious and the project greatly helps us on our way to reducing waste and becoming a more circular business."
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