A cheesemaker's reflections on the crisis
This past month has been a very bumpy one for us, like people and businesses around the world. It seems hard to believe that only a month ago, in mid March, it was business as usual with April kidding the next 'big event' on the horizon for us. It is a deeply worrying time for all and we whole heartedly support the efforts to bring the Coronavirus epidemic under control and save lives.
Artisan cheesemakers are probably not the most obvious category of society to be affected by the current crisis. Indeed, when we are down at the farm, it can seem a million miles away - the goats carry on just as usual, need milking twice a day, and apart from the slightly higher traffic on the footpaths near the farm - always interested to stop and look at the goats in the field - day to day, not much has changed.
Behind the scenes though, it has been turbulent. By the end of the week beginning the 16th March, when the government first advised people to stay away from restaurants, we were seriously wondering if our business would survive at all. Based on what happened a month ago, I would estimate that pre-crisis somewhere between a third and a half of our cheese was going onto restaurant cheeseboards, and all those sales disappeared overnight. Meanwhile, the British public seemed to be focused on 'stocking up', doing big, store cupboard shops in the supermarkets, rather than buying perishable goods in the small, specialist shops we tend to supply. Reports from these were that everyone wanted to buy cheddar and no one was going near soft cheese, presumably in the belief it lasts longer. It wasn't good news for our order book!
The government announcements of business support were initially reassuring, but it soon became apparent that almost none of it would apply to us. All the small business grants are being administered through the business rates system but because our business is based on a farm, and farms are exempt from business rates, we are not 'in' the system and therefore not eligible. The furlough system assumes that you are able to send employees home because there is little or no work to do (such as in a closed shop or restaurant) but of course on a dairy farm, the milking, animal husbandry and cheese making take just as much time to do as they ever did.
However the situation being what it was, we decided to make a plan to see if we could at least survive the next few months and then take stock. It seemed crazy that we were making quality, locally produced food but were facing the prospect of having unsold cheese while there were national concerns about food shortages! We may be a very small business, but in the first week of March, we produced enough cheese to feed 305 adults for a day, if they ate nothing but goats' cheese (there's a thought for you!). It was time for a spreadsheet, a strategy, and a new work and childcare rota for Fraser and I to make the most of every hour in the day so we could reduce cost, furlough some staff and sell every cheese we humanly could.
Even in those bleakest of weeks, there were some rays of hope. Many small local shops have been doing a very brisk trade - Hamblin Bread (Oxford), Sandy Lane Farm (near Oxford), and Pangbourne Cheese Shop are great examples. Similarly, local farmers market, quickly adapting to new social distancing rules, were busier than ever. After some years not going, we went back to East Oxford and South Oxford and have had very busy mornings at both. Meanwhile, customers who already had mail order or local delivery options were quickly able to target these at the increased demand for this service, with some seeing these boom almost immediately, and others taking a week or too longer.
Fast forward a month, and we have had just had two sell out weeks, and are looking at another one ahead. The trend seems to be for people to try and stay away from big supermarkets now, and small shops and delivery services offering high quality products are booming. I suppose shortages, and cooking and eating all your meals at home, have probably focused minds on the provenance and quality of what is being eaten, and given the difficulties in moving food around the world at the moment, eating homegrown produce also seems to make sense. Could this be a lasting trend?
It seems too early to know what the future holds, whether we are looking ahead to next week, next month or next year. We still have some big challenges ahead, not least when our next round of kidding starts in about a week, which is hectic at the best of times. We'll have more milk from those 30 goats as they kid, which will be great if demand continues, but puts more pressure on again. Another cohort of goats will kid in July. All the while, time for admin and routine maintenance is thin on the ground, and like everyone else, it doesn't look like our usual childcare (from nursery or grandparents) will be available again any time soon.
But I am grateful that so far we are still here. As a very small producer it has probably been easier for us than some of the larger artisan cheesemakers to find homes for all our cheese, so nothing has gone to waste. We are able to still get out of the house and be surrounded by countryside every day. Above all, we have all kept in good health, and I know that puts us among the lucky ones