Last week, the Soil Association announced three winners of its Dougal Campbell Cheese Bursary. We applied, for Nettlebed Creamery, in early February and to be honest didn’t really expect to get anywhere. But we did. In fact we are one of the winners!
Dougal Campbell was a very influential figure in the Specialist Cheese industry who I’m afraid I never met. I do know people who speak feelingly of how inspirational and generous he was with his knowledge and time. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have either Lincolnshire Poacher or Hafod on our cheeseboards to name but two.
I do remember his cheese though. In the mid 90s when I was fresh out of university and learning the ropes at this quirky shop in Covent Garden called Neal’s Yard Dairy, we received a delivery of some of the last Tyn Grug cheeses he had made before he died. Possibly because it coincided with me learning to set up a display and learning to sell and taste out cheese to customers, I can still l distinctly remember the big, heavy natural-rinded wheels that could be built into a pleasingly eye-catching tower. I remember the cheese’s golden colour and a fruity flavour that flirted with wildness. I also remember the sadness at his death that was felt at Neal’s Yard amongst the more experienced mongers behind the counter who had met him and knew the cheese and its maker considerably better than I did. It feels very apt to have the influence of this cheesemaker again as I’m embarking on another new learning curve.
In order to apply for the bursary, we had give details of how our farm is managed along organic guidelines and our intentions for the cheese. I found it pretty interesting, not least learning about what Phil the farm manager does. With a bit of luck you will too.
Nettlebed Creamery is a new business and we are in the process of building a dairy with the aim of making a washed rind cheese and a blue cheese using the organic milk produced on the Nettlebed Estate at Merrimoles Farm.
Merrimoles Farm has been in the Fleming family since 1901. The farm is a mixture of arable, sheep and dairy. The Dairy has been sited at Bix since 1969; it became organic in 2004.
There are over 130 cattle in the dairy herd. They are cross-bred Holstein Fresians with Swedish Reds and Montbelliards.
Some specific farming practices with a view to sustainability
The herd are fed using as much home grown feed as possible including in addition to grazing: clover silage, whole crop barley, grain and beans (approx. 15% is purchased – parlour cake). The growth of pasture and feeds are managed using a rotation including clover crops to fix nitrogen and provide fodder.
The cross breeding of the dairy cows (Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red & Montbeliards) has been undertaken to maintain hybrid vigour and provide long lasting, healthy, fertile animals.
The farm is in the Organic Entry Level Scheme (OELS) and has established grass margins, maintains hedgerows and trees and has areas of low input grassland to maintain and increase biodiversity. They alternate grazing with sheep where possible to limit the effect of internal parasites, reduce the need to worm and therefore avoid wormer resistance worms. They use 500t of Green Waste Compost annually to maintain soil reserves and avoid using finite mined fertilisers. In addition they have invested in energy saving electric motors and a heat recovery unit at the dairy (milking) to reduce our energy use.
The Creamery, we are building, is designed taking energy efficiency into account. We will be using water from our neighbour’s woodchip boiler for all our hot water and for our heating as well. We have plans to use solar panels from the roof of the barn next door (our landlord is finalising these plans currently). After our first year of cheese making we will be creating a wetland system to take all the grey water, sewage and the whey from the facility: a system of swales and ditches to filter the waste into clean water. We then intend to plant fruit trees and willows, rushes and wild orchids to assist with the water filtration and at the same time encourage biodiversity.
The cheeses we intend to make will be made using raw milk and using traditional, liquid yoghurt starter cultures. Eventually we intend to culture our own starters and ripening agents solely from the raw milk produced by the estate and vegetable matter grown on the estate (a valuable potential source of lactic acid bacteria), eliminating the need for bought in cultures.
The cheeses will be entirely made by hand which suits the production of soft and blue cheeses best. We will use open vats and the cheese will be made without the use of mechanical stirrers as our soft and blue cheeses require a more gentle handling. A comprehensive set of maturing rooms has been designed to then ensure the cheeses are kept at the appropriate humidity and temperature at all stages of their ripening.
By building a dairy we intend to provide the farm with a future for its Dairy herd which is no longer subject to the fluctuating prices of the milk market. The need for an alternative customer to the current purchaser on the farm was highlighted at a point when the milk price and amount of organic premium was cut without very much warning.
Our dairy will negotiate a fair milk price for the farm that allows them to be profitable and importantly that is guaranteed. In return for milk being produced to specific standards regarding bacterial levels and fat and protein content our milk price can be increased. In addition to cheese, we have plans to investigate the possibilty of using more of the farm’s milk to produce a range of yoghurts and frozen yoghurt. This in turn will allow the farm to maintain and improve on its current sustainable practices and will mean it does not have to dramatically increase herd size in order to turnover more money.
Re-reading this, although these are the aims we’ve talked about since the beginning it does make me feel a little nervous as our aim of fair milk price and providing a sustainable future for the herd will only work if the cheese is as good as I can make it and therefore we sell plenty of it.