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January 11, 2007

Hunting Life: Jorocs diversifies into cheese-making

Posted by Jorocs

What happens when Jorocs' daughter suggests that they should go into commercial cheese-making?

Dad, I'd like to go cheese making.
I didn't realise what a profound effect these words would have on my life. There had always been a tradition of cheese making in our family, particularly when my grandfather had managed to fight off the ill-fortunes of the agricultural depression in the thirties, by turning his milk into cheese and butter and selling it from the back of a horse and cart around the streets of the local town. His father, my great grandfather had definitely been involved in cheese making, since we have the old "whey lead" in the garden with flowers growing in it. This is an enormous wooden trough, lined with lead in which the whey was stored.

My father had made cheese for home consumption, but I never had. Feeling my education was incomplete, two years ago I booked myself into a two-day cheese-making course at Seale Hayne Agricultural College. Being a sociable sort of chap, and not wanting to go alone, I persuaded my eldest daughter to accompany me and learn about cheese-making, thereby two generations were covered at once. Neither she nor I imagined at the time we were going to put this education to good use.

Several years down the line milk prices were continuing to fall, farm finances were getting tighter and my daughter was becoming dissatisfied with her teaching career. Her then boyfriend (who subsequently became her husband) wasn't brought up in the country and therefore was able to think outside of the box. He suggested that surely my daughter could find some business enterprise in this "beautiful rural countryside". So the idea of a commercial cheese making venture was born...

My initial enthusiasm was boundless, make a bit of cheese, put it on the shelves, happy public, happy farmer. I was fast to learn that this prognosis was about as successful as self-publishing. We were fortunate in the early days to receive some very good advice from various advisors and a tremendous amount of help from established cheese-makers. Daughter researched the subject thoroughly, went on another cheese-making course, and worked for several local cheese-makers to learn the business from the bottom up. At this point I must say it's very hard to believe how helpful established cheese makers were to the new kid on the block, who, if successful, would become direct competition.

Thank heavens, all the initial advice we received was to think big, and we were persuaded to desist from converting a small established building on the farm, but to convert a large building which had just been constructed and was looking for a use. It was hard to believe that we would rapidly require all of these large premises, but thank heavens we took the right decision from day one, and we can continue to expand production.

Although the building was already there, a vast amount of planning and expense was required to put in the infrastructure for a cheese factory. The local Anchor butter factory was closing, and future son-in-law and I spent days scavenging appropriate materials. Builders were employed to dig and fit drains, and build walls. Employing builders is a very scary scenario. Especially since we changed the plans at least three times during construction. But fortunately we did and so ended up with the right lay out for cheese making, storage and despatch. Daughter had obtained an EHO number and was already producing small amounts of cheese in the farmhouse kitchen from a cleverly converted Bain Marie.

Having achieved the correct design for the cheese factory, the on-going problem was equipment. Should we use farm skills to build a cheese vat? Even second hand ones seemed expensive. But the non country boy was thinking outside the box again. He purchased a very expensive cheese vat which was slipped onto the farm under the cover of darkness. And a few days later walked my daughter to the top of a hill overlooking the village and proposed marriage. On receiving the affirmative, they walked back to the farm and he casually suggested they look into the cheese factory to look over the building process.

I had spent the last two hours frantically manoeuvring the cheese vat in through the door and, as he pulled the covers off, he was able to say:

This is your engagement present.
It was a rather champagne moment. The same thinking applied when we needed a trailer to transport the milk from the milking parlour to the cheese factory, a hundred yards away. One day he suddenly turned up with a milk tank on two wheels, problem solved.

My daughter's initial success at selling though farmers markets was very encouraging on the whole. But after a year of planning and six months construction under the auspices of the local odd job man who organised builders, plumbers, electricians etc., come December we were ready to roll in earnest. Although at this point, the staggering volume of bills rolling in against the meagre returns from the farmers' markets was frightening, one had to keep faith with the long-term concept. It followed that many sleepless nights were involved. Having to pay tradesmen continually really drove home the difference between the farming community and the rest of the world - how farmers unthinkingly work long hours for meagre returns, compared to those in the servicing industries who are gleefully paid by the hour, whether or not they can sort out the recurring problem of the trip switch etc.

Production began gradually; confidence grew in the product, both by the producer and the consumer. Volumes of sales at the end of the first year have necessitated the purchase of a delivery van, emblazoned with the company logo. I feel this has been an enormous step forward, and only wish my grandfather were around to see how the values he instilled in his family of looking forward and being prepared to take large and necessary steps for the survival of the farm have been rewarded. We are still only in our first year, and if anyone came to me and said they wanted to build a cheese factory on their farm I would tell them to put their head in a bucket of water until the urge disappeared. I have come to realise that you can buy an established business, or develop a new one. But to develop a new one takes more than a good idea and lots of enthusiasm. Sheer hard work and a large slice of luck are necessary, along with good business sense, and the determination to achieve.

We are now a year down the line, producing a range of seven cheeses, hard and soft, using traditional Wiltshire recipes and also several new innovative ones. There is increasing demand from the farmers' markets, and we are developing outlets through shops and restaurants; but most important of all, I feel we have established a reason, a purpose and a future for the dairy herd on this farm.

Jorocs writes about farming and hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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