As Britain’s specialist cheesemakers and retailers join forces to urge the public to ‘support local cheesemakers’ in a post-pandemic world, there’s never been a better time to praise our local producers.
And as we all continue to do our bit to help businesses both big and small come back stronger, it’s been wonderful to venture out into the wider region to hear about those local heroes doing their bit in the community.
In this case, it’s not just the happy cows we’re praising; it’s the forward-thinking ideas of those feeding our community.
The Home Farmer’s ‘Milk On’t Move’ initiative was a big win for those living in Wensleydale villages throughout the lockdown period.
“Our mobile milk vending machine – a horse trailer converted into a ‘dairy shop’ – really came into its own throughout the pandemic,” says Ben.
“The trailer is parked in a different Wensleydale village each day of the week and is left un-manned with an honesty box for the cheese and a vending machine system in place for the milk.
“Simply insert coins, select your bottle, take off the lid and fill up. The idea is that you buy the glass bottle and then it’s yours to keep. You use it, sterilise it, bring it back and go again.
“We also have a second vending machine sitting in Campbell’s of Leyburn – a family-run, Yorkshire supermarket.”
Home Farmer, headed up by Ben and his brother Adam, alongside a wider team of their parents David and Susan, and Ben’s wife Sam, has been in the Spence family since the 1950s, but is relatively new to the cheese business.
“Our family heritage goes back a long way on the farm, but we only started working with cheese last July.”
But the brothers were delighted to find they were entering a tight-knit community where growing businesses support and lean on one another.
“With us being brand new, Andy at The Courtyard Dairy helped us out quite a lot. It’s been great to have a mentor in the industry, and it has helped us get our name out there.
“The cheese has gone down really well locally. We’re stocked at Wensleydale Creamery, Campbell’s of Leyburn, Lewis & Cooper in Northallerton and many other local businesses – and we’re also available to buy online.
“The vending machine trailer is another new platform for us. It turned out to be a really positive outlet for the local community during the lockdown. People had a safe space to go to get their milk and cheese, and it worked a treat.
“The support of local people is so important. It’s nice because farmhouse cheese making was once prevalent in the Dales – there was a farmhouse cheesemaker at nearly every farm in the area. Many of which have disappeared in recent years, so the locals are pleased that we’re here doing what we’re doing – albeit on a pretty small dairy farm by modern standards.
“But we’re diversifying and bringing farmhouse cheese back to the local market, which is great. It’s something that hasn’t been done in Wensleydale for a long, long time, and we’re proud to be a part of its comeback.
“It’s brought a bit of nostalgia for local people.”
So, what is a relatively new business venture for the folk at Home Farmer, is backed by heaps of family history and heritage.
“My grandma and grandad bought the farm in 1953. To begin with, it was just a stone barn. My grandad, my dad and my brother have developed the farm to what it is now.
“We started milking with 10-15 Dairy Shorthorns – they were bred through the generations until we got taken out with foot and mouth in 2001.
“We lost our herd, which was a real shame for our heritage, and since then we’ve been running a flying herd, where we buy from another dairy farm.”
Home Farm is now in its third generation. After starting an accountancy career in the city, Ben and his wife Sam made the move from Manchester to continue the tradition and work in the family business.
“I always said that if I moved back into farming, I wouldn’t just do more of the same,” says Ben.
“I wanted to diversify and do something completely different. So we spent some time with David Hartley, the MD of Wensleydale Creamery, and he advised us to look into unpasteurised cheese while the European grants were available.
“We were taken back a little by the suggestion, because they were so big on their cheese and we didn’t want to step on their toes. But actually, when you get into the artisan cheese market, you realise that they can’t really do it up there as you need a single farm with unpasteurised milk, which is just something they can’t do at the creamery.
“They gave us a hand getting the process in place and putting it out to market, so we had a really good relationship with them, and the rest is history really.”
The key to The Home Farmer’s early success, Ben tells me, is the happy cows. Happy cows, happy business – it’s as simple as that.
“Our cows are our bread and butter,” smiles Ben.
“They’ve been out on the grass for most of the summer and into early autumn, so they’ll be coming in at some point in October. They’re housed inside rather than outside in the colder months, because of our good old Yorkshire weather!”
“We’ve built a brand new, all-purpose shed and milking parlour, all created with animal welfare and happy cows in mind. “While they are inside, the cows are as happy as they can be. They have scratching brushes, foam mattresses, everything they need to ensure they’re living a quality life.
“We’re a nation of people who like to know where our food is coming from. We are much more inquisitive now, and I think that can only be a good thing. If you don’t look after your animals, you don’t sell products.
“From a business perspective, if I’ve got a happy cow that feels well in itself, it’s going to produce me a lot more milk.”
Ben and his small family team currently have 93 cows on the farm, all with names and personalities.
“They are just like our pets I guess,” explains Ben.
“I know every single one by number, but many of the cheeky cows – excuse my French – by name.
“Beyoncé, Ginny and Nancy are three that instantly spring to mind – they tend to sneak past the farm gate. Beyoncé has certainly got some sass about her, I can tell you that for sure.
“Charmaine is a friendly one – she’ll stop and say hello to anyone that passes by. She’s not a shy lady.”
With a herd of happy cows, a loyal customer base and a growing business with the unique ability to pivot during a pandemic, things are looking up for The Home Farmer. “Christmas is the next big milestone for us,” says Ben.
“We did the festive season briefly last year, but nobody really knew about us.
This year, we’ll be putting more cheese to our stockists, we’ll be pushing our Old Roan in the vending machines and we’ll continue to collaborate with other local businesses and cheesemakers.
“It’s great for us to work with other individuals and organisations such as those producing hampers and grazing boxes. It’s a fantastic way for us to promote our cheese. Instagram is a key market for that, so we’re definitely working on our marketing plan for the back end of 2020 and into 2021.”