Set in the lush hills of Somerset, Wyke Farms has kept its roots local and traditional despite growing into a renowned brand sold in more than 160 countries. British Farmer and Grower's Lee Perry spoke to managing director Richard Clothier about the company’s impressive growth, and why keeping true to your roots is important in farming...
When Richard Clothier’s grandmother Ivy started making cheese on her family farm she would never have known that 155 years later her secret recipe would be recognised as a brand throughout much of the world.
Starting as a hobby, and made from milk from her husband’s first dairy herd, the recipe became popular locally and new milk producers, mainly met during local skittle matches, were brought in to supply so the company could grow.
But you need to skip ahead more than 100 years – to 1997 – before Wyke Farms, already a big deal in the UK cheese market, started to make waves internationally. Richard, now the managing director, speaks fondly and proudly of the family heritage.
He is fully aware of how the dairy sector is faring in a competitive market with dwindling farmgate prices and for him, the export market has been essential to Wyke Farms in weathering the storm. “Exports have been a real bright spot for us in the past few years,” he said.
“UK retail has been really tough but exports have helped mitigate this a bit because we have seen quite a lot of growth. By March this year we finished up with our exports being 20-25% of our total volume which is really high.
"That’s up from less than 10% last year, but the really good thing is we have picked up some really good blue chip companies. We have had our first listing in the US, with Walmart, plus Ahold, which is owned by Delhaize, and our Carrefour business in France is going quite strongly.”
The growth started with the support and advice from UK and Trade and Investment (UKTI), a UK government department, and a trip to Bordeaux (see panel). Since then, the list of countries they supply has grown rapidly – 150 at last count – in places like Australia, Canada and the Bahamas.
But during this time and despite the massive growth, Richard has tried to ensure that the core focus of the brand has remained the same.
“Staying true to the principles of the business have been key for us, and those are that the cheese is made to my grandmother’s recipe – my grandfather always used to say that you would never buy milk from a farm that you wouldn’t stop and stay for tea and that was his original way of doing a farm audit – so they are all audited farms.
“Most of the farms we use are within 30 miles, or a lot of organic milk out of South Wales and Gloucestershire, so it’s about keeping the quality and recipe. The grading and selection has to be right every single time.
“We’ve invested quite heavily into the right equipment to produce the right cheese on a consistent basis and staying true to our farming principles as well, which includes being 100% green too.” One of the biggest advantages, he said, is making the most of international goodwill to the quality of British produce –a method which has been especially popular in America.
“The products are now in America so now we have to start the tastings and get them to build the volume,” he said.
“It’s funny because if you go the US, all they want to hear about is Britain and the Union Flag, but in the home market it is almost as if no-one wants to hear about it. Even in France, they love it.
“We have Union Flag days in stores based on bowler hats, London buses, and typically British ideas, and they absolutely love it. We’ve been dealing in France since 1997 and they love the region of Somerset, which is very similar to Northern France.”
It’s a lot of work, he admitted, travelling from one country to the next to promote the brand and the product itself. But although business is booming, he can’t help but fear for the dairy industry’s future here in the UK.
His family’s business has been through it before, in both dairy and in the pig industry.
“Some of what goes on in the UK market makes me very sad. As a farmer, I can see the damage that’s being done to our industry.
It’s irreparable damage and potentially the second time in my farming career where I have seen this happen,” he said.
“We were pig farmers through the 80s and 90s. We saw the industry decimated – from 300,000 slaughterings a week down to 200,000 a week in a period of years and it was all replaced by imports, so it was a similar situation – over-supply in Europe and a strong pound.”
Richard said the only way to stem the tide is to get guaranteed support from retailers and government – there is only so low dairy farmers can go before they quit. He added: “It makes me sad to see that the UK supply chain can’t see the damage that is being done.”