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Winners follow-up: Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore – 2018 Dairy Innovator of the Year

A change to Montbeliarde cows and the development of a successful and fast-growing cheese business led to Suffolk dairy farmers Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore winning the Dairy Innovator of the Year Award last year.

When dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore first dipped his toe into direct sales with sales of raw milk from the farmgate, he did not initially have a ‘big plan’, but the move triggered the start of some dramatic changes for the family business.

At the time, he and parents Graham and Frances, were milking about 270 high-yielding Holsteins.

Jonny says: “We had Friesians when I was a child and, in the late 1980s, we started breeding Holstein into the herd. Ten years later, we had a 10,000-litre high-yielding Holstein herd.

“We had to change our system over the years as cows changed. We had to feed more to get milk and kept them in sheds rather than on our water meadows.

“But we were beginning to think we wanted to change that and breed our cows into more of a grazing animal again. At around the same time, we set up the milk shed to start selling raw milk via an honesty system.

“The new project was popular with local customers. Customers kept coming back because they liked our raw milk and said it tasted good.

“It made sense to breed animals to improve that further. We were making a better profit from our milk, so we also set about making cheese.”

Cheesemaking

In a bid to research their market, Jonny and wife Dulcie visited artisan cheesemakers across the UK and did a cheesemaking course to learn the basics.

Jonny says: “The farmhouse cheese industry consists of a lovely bunch of people. They are really open and happy to share their ideas and we have taken that forward with what we do too.”

They spotted a gap in the market for a British made Brie de Meaux-style cheese, made from raw milk, and so set their sights to produce an artisan contender.

Jonny says: “We found a French cheesemaker called Ivan Larcher and went to visit him. He asked what style of cow we had and when we said Holstein he said it would not work.

“He said cheesemaking was all about the type of protein in milk.”

On Ivan’s advice, they decided to invest in the Montbeliarde breed and imported 72 cows from France in 2012.

Jonny says: “It is a cow bred for cheesemaking, so was the obvious choice. Plus there are enough Montbeliarde cattle in the UK, so it felt it was the right thing to do. They are not too obscure.

“The Montbeliarde is a bit smaller and stockier than the Holstein. They go on and on like an old Volvo. They just keep going, but they are a little more flighty.

“They make out they are calm and could not care less, but then will kick you in the parlour.”

The herd now stands at about 300 cows, which are mostly Montbeliarde or cross-breeds.

Jonny says: “We are back to what we were producing 10 years ago and, although we have a few more cows, yields are lower per cow at about 8,000 litres.

“The main difference, however, is that average protein is 3.6 per cent and 4.2 per cent butterfat.”

Ivan advised the couple on the design and layout of their cheesemaking buildings, which were constructed in 2012, with cheesemaking beginning in May 2013.

Jonny says: “Ivan came and made cheese with us at the start, but we still had a lot to learn. We knew the basics, but did not understand how different factors interacted with each other.

“We were making a really  challenging cheese and it has taken a lot of work to perfect it.”

Investment

The growth of raw milk sales made the honesty box system look attractive to thieves. So in 2011, Jonny decided to invest in a vending machine and milk dispenser machine from Italy.

The machine, which uses glass bottles, cost £6,000 plus shed and installation costs, but enabled them to grow their direct sales.

Jonny says: “We were quite quickly selling 50 litres per day, and this is now up to 150-160 litres per day.”

The next product to be developed was raw cultured butter.

“We sour the cream before it is churned to make butter and that brings out more flavour and texture; it is really buttery,” he says.

Butter is also offered from the vending machine, but like their Baron Bigod Brie, is also sold all over the country and beyond to high-end restaurants,  delicatessens and farm shops.

Jonny says: “A cheese shop in Singapore is the furthest away, but we have other buyers in Europe and a small amount goes to Asia.

“We have had to learn how to have a team of people, as we now have 20 people working for us, most of them full-time. The business keeps growing.

“We want to deliver great service and we believe it is really important we are always polite and professional with a ‘yes, we can do it’ attitude.”

The products are sold through around 20 wholesalers with 80 per cent of products by volume going through about 10 of those.

Raw milk, cheese and butter now account for about 40 per cent of the herd’s production, with the rest being sold to a processor.

Jonny says: “It works well for us having that proportion. I believe that because our standards have to be extra high for raw milk production, the processor  benefits too.”

Now the couple plan to add skyr to the Fen Farm Dairy product portfolio, an Icelandic-style yoghurt made with skimmed milk.

With plans underway, Jonny has recently returned from a visit to a remote farmhouse business in Iceland, all in the name of research.

He says: “We have always taken the approach that if we want to learn something, we are going to learn from someone who makes it in a traditional way, not go to a large factory. Our niche is farmhouse and traditional.

“We already have all the equipment and a lot of skimmed milk, so I hope to be making it within a month or so.”

In the longer term, Jonny hopes to fulfil his dream of a second herd on a separate site, possibly producing a second type of cheese.

He says: “It would be amazing to be able to build it from scratch and design the whole farm around a cheesemaking unit. It would run so efficiently and would be a dream to do that.”

But for now, his newly expanded cheesemaking facility is keeping him busy enough: “Our sales are growing about 25 per cent each year, so the new building is bigger than we currently need. We produced 60 tonnes of our Baron Bigod this year and that is growing and growing.”

Winning the Dairy Innovator Award was particularly special for Jonny, as it came nine years after being named runner-up in the Dairy Farmer of the Future Award, run by Farmer Guardian’s sister title Dairy Farmer.

He says: “That was part of the reason we went in the direction we did. It gave me confidence in myself that other people obviously thought I was doing something right.”

Being up against other dairy farmers in the British Farming Awards was a proud moment and has inspired Jonny further.

“When you win an award, it makes you think about what you can do next. I would definitely recommend others to enter. If you have done something well, make sure you sing about it.

“Dairy farmers do not tend to boast, but we should do. We are all doing an incredible thing for the country and should be proud.”