Camilla Swift meets the forward-thinking Suffolk farming family shaking up the cheese-making industry.
In 2018, Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy won Dairy Innovator of the Year category at the British Farming Awards. In the same year, his Baron Bigod cheese won the Best British Raw Milk Cheese award; in 2017, it had won gold at the British Cheese Awards.
But this isn’t your average brie; it is made entirely in Suffolk, from the raw milk of French Montbéliarde cows. Crickmore is the fourth generation of his family to farm here, on the marshlands of the Waveney River Valley. But he’s the first Crickmore to diversify into cheese-making.
“I love farming and I love cows,” explains Jonny. “I always wanted to be a dairy farmer and still do, but I just got disheartened by it all.” By ‘it all’ he is referring to the dairy industry that so many dairy farmers are obliged to be a part of. “In the late 2000s the industry was pretty ruthless,” he continues. “You had big milk processors just cutting milk prices. They cut it because they were under pressure from supermarkets, and that really got to me. I felt like it was really hard to see a future in the style of farming we were doing at the time.”
That set him on a path of diversification, thinking about what other routes might be viable on the farm. His initial idea came about in 2011 through visiting free-range hen farms. What caught his eye wasn’t the hens themselves, but something else the farmers were doing. “On one or two of these farms I noticed an honesty box- style shop,” he explains. “It just amazed me the amount of people who came up this farmer’s drive to get their eggs.” At £1.20 for a dozen – as opposed to the 60p a farmer would receive selling them on to a supermarket – the margins seemed to make sense. “I thought: why don’t we do that with milk?” But in order to sell milk direct to the customer, most farmers would need a processing plant and even a milk round: it all required a fair bit of investment. Instead, Crickmore decided to sell raw milk direct from the farm, just like the chicken farmer with his eggs. “We built a shed; painted it black and white and wrote ‘milk’ on the side. We left the door open and then lo and behold, at the end of the day 30 litres of milk became 30 one pound coins!”
It wasn’t quite as easy as that; problems with people stealing milk led them to install a milk dispenser machine which they sourced from Italy. This in turn led to Crickmore selling vending machines to other farmers who wanted to do the same. The vending machine business he sold on, but the raw milk idea grew and grew. The dispenser idea “gave us a taste for diversification. I thought if we set up a cheese- making facility on the farm then we would use lots more of our milk and we could sell cheese.”
They decided to make brie “because no one else in the UK was making a raw milk brie: strangely, they’re still not”, and went to France to find out about it, before getting in touch with cheesemongers such as Neal’s Yard Dairy to find out if their plan was viable. They bought two lorry loads of French Montbéliarde cows and did “everything a Frenchman would do to make brie; but we did that in Suffolk. The beauty is that it’s made in England. Over the last 10 to 15 years we’ve seen a growth in local produce and people buying local again. Now we’re using a lot of our milk for cheese production and other products such as butter, mascarpone and skyr yoghurt.”
It isn’t just with dairy products that Crickmore thinks outside the box. When it comes to pasture he has been rethinking the typical lays of rye grass and clover that the farm had used in the past. “Our soil is hungry for nitrogen, and the species of plants that grow on our land are ones which are hungry for nitrogen.” That doesn’t make sense to him. “I’ve yet to put this to practice properly, but what we should be doing is putting different mixed species in there which complement one another.” His ultimate aim is to step away from using fertilisers altogether and allow the grass to look after itself.
The farm’s energy usage is something else that Crickmore was concerned about. “Our electric bill is astronomical, and that made me start thinking.” The cheese-making process requires hot water, but he noticed that one water pipe – which ran under the cow yard and was quite close to the surface – produced much warmer water. “I thought that if the muck is 45 degrees and I put a water pipe through it, I might get a similar temperature. Well, we got 35 degrees. But you’ve changed the water from six degrees to 35 degrees, so you’ve taken that bit of temperature heating out. That’s around £3 on a £10 bill every single day.” He has also installed a straw burner “which now heats up all of the water in the cheese building.” Similarly, a solar panel and battery pack system means that on a bright day the farm can be powered by solar energy, with the batteries storing up excess energy and taking over when the sun sets.
He hopes, in time, to move to “things like electric tractors, and tractors that run on water; I have all sorts of crazy ideas at the moment”. For now, he is trialling hydrolysers on two of the farm tractors, which should help with both fuel savings and reducing carbon emissions. What he doesn’t want to do, however, is just jump on some subsidy-led bandwagon. “We have to be careful that we don’t get into this world where it’s just all about trying to make money from carbon,” he says. “It’s about trying to feed people locally; harvesting stuff around the farm, and trying to put back what you take out. We have to be careful it’s not all take take-take: you’ve got to put it back too.”