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A crisis in English goats cheese?

In late 2016, when our cheese Sinodun Hill first arrived on the counter at Neal’s Yard Dairy, it sat amongst a range of other English goats cheeses made by cheesemakers with their own small herds of goats. You could have bought yourself a Stawley, a Tymsboro, a Sleightlett, a Cardo, an Innes Brick, an Innes Log, a Wellesley…

Fast forward to July 2020, and the picture has changed dramatically. Will and Caroline Atkinson stopped cheesemaking late in 2016, and Stawley and Wellesley were lost. Early in 2019, Mary Holbrook sadly died and Tymsboro, Sleightlett and Cardo too went out of production. This month, Joe and Amiee of Highfields Dairy decided to move on from cheesemaking, and the Innes Brick and Innes Log, and Highfields (their hard cheese) will also go.

The sale of Joe and Amiee’s goats to cheesemaker Martin Gott gives me some hope, but it is a sobering time to be a small cheesemaker with a herd of goats. All those cheesemakers listed above made fantastic cheeses, which sat alongside and quite frankly often outperformed their more famous French counterparts. To me, these cheeses, and ours, share some common features – a similar style, a more delicate flavour that seems to appeal to British palate, and a goat husbandry style that differs considerably – in my view, for the better - from that found in the very large scale liquid goat’s milk producers. It is a successful formula.

In each of the cases listed above, the reason for stopping cheese production had nothing to do with the quality or success of the cheeses themselves. Health, family needs, time for a change, retirement, mortality, an economic crisis, often in combination. These are all things that happen in everyone’s lives. Fraser and I have no plans to stop cheese making, but it would be foolish to think that one of the reasons I just listed won’t come along sooner or later.

In ‘normal’ businesses, the fact that the founding individual moves on doesn’t necessarily spell their end. Most of our great British foods have survived for generations. So why are cheeses from small cheesemakers with their own goat herds so vulnerable?

It seems to me that there is a structural problem here which we need to try and address.

These are very difficult businesses to start – the equipment is expensive, the herds take a long time to build up, the process of developing a cheese is long, the land and premises are hard to find and costly to buy and maintain. All the technical expertise in our country is focused on keepers of sheep, cows and pigs, so it can feel like you’re making it up as you go along with goats unless you have learnt from your own experience. These are big barriers to entry to people wanting to join our sector. For them to be so easily lost when a goats cheesemaker stops and sells their herd is a devastating waste.

Some of the longer term projects for goats cheese makers are works of decades. The one closest to my heart is developing a bloodline of goats that is really suited to cheese making rather than liquid milk production, and that can be kept effectively on an outdoor, pasture based system rather than on the intensive, zero grazed system that dominates in our country. We have been doing this for 4 and a half years now and this is literally only just beginning to get anywhere, in our herd. But what am I missing, that other cheesemakers could tell me, have already been working on?

The fact is, we all did start these business, despite the massive challenges: Will and Caroline, Mary, the Bennetts, and Fraser and I. It is probably hard to understand the effort and resilience needed to get a business like this off the ground unless you’ve done it yourself, but let me tell you, it’s tough! Massively worthwhile when you feel like you are part of a cheese and farming revolution, but very depressing when you feel like the product you have put so much effort into creating will just slip away once you are no longer in a position to carry on producing it with your own hands.

Can anything be done about this? I hope so. The many French lactic goats cheeses live on beyond their creators, and founding farms. British cows milk cheeses seem to be more resilient too. We should be able to make this sector – small goats cheesemakers with their own herds - more resilient, more coherent, more of a presence.

We could still have time to capture the recipes used in these recently ‘lost’ cheeses and talk to those who actually made them. It is not impossible to imagine them coming back into production, even. But could we do more? Could we form any kind of group or association to protect and promote what we do? Something that would help our cheeses take on a life beyond the individuals they owe their existence to? A way to share knowledge and understanding of husbandry and farming systems for goats kept for cheesemaking? A way to help new entrants to the sector?

If anyone reads this and feels the same as me, please do get in touch. I’d love to do something positive about this and see if we can turn the tide.

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