News from Nettlebed

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Over the summer we received planning permission for our build based on some preliminary plans.  I received the news by text somewhere in the Labirinto in the Dolomites (see above).  It was a rather good setting in which to receive good news and felt appropriately celebratory.

Of course we hadn’t really expected to get the go ahead quite that early and I was in Italy for another 6 weeks so our progress wasn’t as quick as perhaps it could have been all things considered.  We did, by dint of long distance phone calls to Alan Hayes of Capital Refrigeration who had expressed interest in building the interiors, manage to agree a basic interior layout and after a trip to Cheese in Piedmont and a rather informal meeting with Ivan Larcher by the side of the NYD stand, got confirmation that it would be appropriate for the volumes we intend to make and the types of cheese we intend to make.

Image(Cutting edge Dairy design happened right next to this scene of cheese retail).

On my return to the UK and having managed to ascertain a date when Ivan would be in the UK, we arranged for him and Alan to meet and go through our final plans, sign off on them more or less and basically agree what we were planning to build in terms of its cost effectiveness and practicality.  We also met our future EHO who is all we could possibly wish for!  She freely admitted that she didn’t have experience of cheese but when Rose initially mentioned plans to make cheese and unpasteurised cheese at that, her employers put her on a course taught by Dr Paul Neaves so that she could learn more.  She was surprised to find that on this course, raw milk in and of itself wasn’t considered a problem and as long as we have good hygienic practices in work and hygiene is made practical and easy to achieve by the design of our building, she will be happy.  I was particularly impressed too that she had researched the Specialist Cheesemakers Association and was aware of current negotiations by the SCA’s Technical Committee to nominate a primary authority in Cornwall.  Primary authorities are a new(ish) idea, I believe, which are particularly useful for big companies with lots of different sites, like Arla or Dairycrest.  They nominate the authority at their head office or main manufacturing plant as their primary authority and this means that each site doesn’t have to deal with a different local authority as interpretations of the regulations is apparently extremely changeable from one borough to the next.  The SCA has used this as a template for themselves as an organisation so that all members of the SCA can deal direct with one authority.  The hope is that this will put an end to the issues individual members have had with one authority being unneccessarily obstructive with raw milk cheese producers due to half knowledge and perceived threats from its unpasteurised nature where one with more experience is a dream to work with and entirely co operative.  From the EHO’s point of view, as we learned when meeting ours, it’s a big relief too because it means that should there be a problem with a new business making a ‘dangerous’ raw milk cheese, the buck doesn’t stop with them.

From those meetings, things continue to move on.  Our barn is full of straw that the current tenant needs to move.  This hasn’t happened yet though I am assured that it will be doing so on either Wednesday or Thursday this week.  Once that happens a structural engineer will go in and assess what strengthening and repairs need to be done to the existing structure which has been up for a few years and may need a little bit of TLC to get it up to scratch for what we need it to do.  After that, accurate costs can be drawn up and following that, work can begin on the exteriors.  And when the walls go up outside, I will start to relax a bit.  Until then it’s weather dependent and we are of course entering winter.  Once the outside walls and roof are done, interior work can carry on regardless of the rain.  If everything runs to time (which we’ve been advised not to expect) we could start cheesemaking on April 8th.  However, as the advice from older and wiser heads is that it won’t run to time, we could hope to be up and running anywhere from May to September.  Another reason at this stage why I’ll relax a bit more when there are some walls there.  It will give a clearer idea of when I need to move house again and when I can get my hands in that curd!

Until then, however, I have Christmas Cheese Mongering to take my mind off things.  The next couple of weeks will see me, swaddled in so many layers of thermal clothing that I look like the Michelin man, behind the counter of the Mons Cheesemongers Borough Market Stall.

Can I switch my allegiance from Neal’s Yard Dairy British Cheese to the French stuff?  You bet I can. It’s in the family now!  Vacherin and Gruyere for Christmas anyone?

Musical Chairs or Where to Site a Dairy

When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy.  A couple of places had been proposed.  She had her favourite.  Neither one was without its problems.

Chair No 1, Manor Farm

Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant..

Chair No 2, The Grain Dryer

The other site, known to us as the Grain Dryer Site, was basically a field next to a sawmill and a barn with grain drying silos, hence the name.  There were no tenant issues here but equally the build would be much bigger and more expensive.  There was no structure we could use, so everything, including the foundations and hardcore needed to be put down.  It was also potentially more difficult to get our planning permission too, as it would need to be a completely new build.
The Grain Dryer site, looking back to our potential neighbours
Looking north to the copse, our potential view from the make room

Chair No 3, At the Dairy itself

Both sites offered a challenge but a third possibility presented itself.  There was a field adjacent to the milking parlour and the cows on the farm itself.  It wasn’t a popular option with the farm managers as they need to expand the milking parlour sometime in the next five years and need their space as much as possible, however in theory it was an option.
Around this time, we called in Ivan Larcher to advise us and help design the dairy.  He visited all 3 sites and pronounced in favour of the field by the milking parlour.  A dairy should be close to the milk ideally after all.  However shortly after Ivan’s visit, the farm managers decided that the field was too valuable to them to give up.  The other sites on the estate were on flinty soil, no use for grazing land and not particularly easy to farm for arable too.   This field was good grazing land for the cows and they needed it.  It was a very fair argument and one we accepted.  Back to our first two sites then.

Chair no 4, Off the Estate

With both of these sites problematic for the moment, we were considering going with the latter when Rose’s cousin made an offer of a barn on his farm, just off the estate.  It was a big, wooden clad barn, attractive to look at and with plenty of space.
The problem here was that Rose has a major business rule:
‘Don’t go into business with friends or family but become friends with people you go into business with.’
While an element of family involvement had to be on the cards if she wanted to build a creamery that would buy from the estate’s farm (itself a family business), using her cousin’s barn seemed unwise in case he had cause at any point to regret his offer and discovered, a couple of years in, that actually he didn’t like having cheesemaking on his doorstep.  Lest family relations become strained, his kind offer was declined.

Back to Chair no 2 then

So we returned to the Grain Dryer site.  We adapted Ivan’s drawings to the new site and its orientation and investigated what we would need to get together in order to present an application for planning permission: a business plan, architects drawings, an ecologist’s report stating that we would not be damaging the environment. We emailed the highways agency to check they would have no objection.  Along the way we made the unfortunate discovery that in Oxfordshire the council requires new builds to conform to BREEAM which sets out requirements for the new building to be as energy efficient as possible.  Unfortunate, that is, in that it would involve an audit to a standard that is as thick as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, only with A4 pages and that it would add at least £10k to our costs, the principles of being as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible and keeping our energy consumption as low as we can are actually pretty key to our whole ethos. While it largely applies to buildings larger than the one we planned to build, the council were still keen to enforce it.  Then the Highways Agency got in touch – the access road had insufficient visibility, in their view, given the speed limit of the main road at that point.
This bombshell dropped just before Christmas leading to a slightly dispiriting atmosphere over the Christmas break and many a curse was sent the way of the Highways Agency in my house.  Damn them , what were they trying to do, make sure people didn’t die on the roads or something?  They  needed us to cut down 250m of trees in both directions to improve the vision splay and unfortunately some of those trees were ancient woodland which would make the ecologist, who, until now, was very happy with our plans, because we are putting in a wetland system that will have a positive impact on wildlife, very unhappy indeed.
the yellow lines show the potential tree destruction – a very long way along the road in both directions
In the New Year we found a Highways Agency consultant (no I never knew they existed before now either) and they arranged to visit the site and look at the road.  Meeting them was very positive, they pointed out that because the road was curved (although it doesn’t look that way on the maps), the cars were slowing down and drove at considerably less than the sixty miles an hour that was the speed limit.  In their opinion this meant less trees needed taking back and the ancient woodland would be safe.  However we still had a case to fight and despite the report and speed survey they intended to carry out we had no guarantee that the Highways Agency would agree.  In addition, the architects and BREEAM consultant had indicated that we would need to raise around £600k to build the place and have it conform with the expected standards.

Chair no 5, The Temporary Home

With a long and potentially complicated planning application in the offing, ever more reports that needed to be generated and a lot of cash to be raised, Rose’s mother came up with the extremely sensible suggestion that we look for a temporary home, so that we could at least start making cheese even though our planning application and build wasn’t finished.  We looked at nearby light industrial units and found one that had potential.  Not as picturesque as the dairy we wanted to build but perfectly functional if the costs stacked up.
We wouldn’t be able to stay in it for all that long as it wasn’t big enough for us to make more than one type of cheese and we wouldn’t have much maturing space but it was worth doing the number crunching.  Rose’s mother was also able to let us know that the situation at site no 1, Manor Farm had changed and it was now potentially a possibililty..

Chair no 6 or is it no 1 again

A second and third visit to the industrial unit revealed some rather unpleasant and food tainting smells coming from a metalworks next door which ruled that site out of the running.  However, good news, the site at Manor Farm was indeed possible.
So the twisting turning route of our game of musical chairs has spun through the full 360 until we’re back at the place we first thought of.  It has a structure already and hard foundations so the building costs won’t be as much as at the Grain Dryer site.  It also only needs change of use planning permission rather than full planning permission for a new build.  The signs are good.  Ivan is designing us another dairy layout, ecologists are reporting, the highways shouldn’t have a problem with access as the road leads out into the village where the speed limit is a very sedate speed.  The aim is to apply for planning permission in the next month.
Keep your fingers crossed.