How do you improve on success?
When Simon Jones returned from his gap year and looked around his father’s three-herd dairy business in 1988, he could not see an opening.
After two years at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, he was ready to get his teeth into dairy farming, but the 690ha (1700-acre) mixed farm in Lincolnshire was working well without him, so what could he do?
His answer involved a poacher. Lincolnshire Poacher, to be precise.
And 17 years on, this prize-winning farmhouse Cheddar is generating most of the income at Ulceby Grange.
Since 1988, the farm has been whittled down to 324ha (800 acres) of combinable crops and grassland and a single 220-cow herd, but it is more profitable than ever.
Simon’s younger brother Tim has also been lured into the enterprise, to work full-time on marketing the cheese.
“I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the business when I returned in 1988,” says Simon.
“It was all very efficiently run by a farm manager.
So, I decided to make myself a niche with the cheese, which we started producing in 1992.”
He spent two years researching cheese-making with producers in Somerset and Wales, before rolling up his sleeves and starting to make his own cheese in an old bulk tank.
“I started doing a run once a week.
We invested, but not heavily, in some second-hand equipment, new moulds and a press.”
The early batches were matured for seven months, and the finished product was finally launched in front of local press in the farmhouse sitting room.
“I held a blind tasting of some other cheeses I thought were in competition, and in a straw poll with local press and radio, we came top.”
Encouraged, Simon decided to market the cheese through a wholesaler, who soon had to ration it as demand grew.
But he was presented with a tough dilemma when the farm manager left.
“I had to take over the running of the herd and decide either to pack in the cheese or invest more and employ someone to make it.”
After much deliberation, he decided to invest 70,000 in a bigger dairy with a dedicated cheese store and washing room.
He also decided to ratchet up production to four days a week from October to May.
That was in 1996, and today the farm pours 80% of its herd’s annual 1.9m litres of milk into cheese-making.
That year proved to be a turning point for the fledgling business, as Lincolnshire Poacher was voted supreme champion at the British Cheese Awards.
Suddenly supermarkets were clamouring for the cheese, with Sainsbury’s keen to buy more of it than Simon was willing to sell.
Two years later, Simon’s younger brother Tim left a job in London to take over responsibility for marketing the cheese.
It is now sold in hundreds of delis, independent retailers, Waitrose and in selected Sainsbury’s stores.
“We are very keen on making sure we share our cheese around and are not overly reliant on one outlet,” says Tim.
“Neal’s Yard Dairy is our biggest customer, taking 15% of what we produce and exporting some to the USA.”
The farm also sells through about 50 farmers’ markets, where it also markets organic eggs from its 800 layers and farm butter made of the cream left suspended in the whey.
Sold under the Lincolnshire Poacher brand, they produce 600 pats a week.
The farm used to own a 50% stake in a local farm produce wholesaler, Tim says, but they decided it was too expensive to run their own fleet of vans.
Lincolnshire Poacher is now distributed directly on chilled pallets or, for smaller orders, overnight with Parcelforce.
Production is still growing fast and will hit 140t of mature cheese this year, he said, up 20% on 2004.
But the dairy is reaching capacity and nearly all the farm’s own milk is being poured into cheese-making, so volumes will top out at about 170t of cheese a year, he thinks.
Any more and the dairy would have to move to seven-days-a-week production.
That would cut any slack out of the system and could cause problems, he adds.
The next big step is organic certification for the milk, which is now only nine months away.
That will feed through to the cheese, which should command a higher premium as an organic product.
Though the Jones’ are not resting on their laurels, they are not planning to diversify into other sorts of cheese just yet.
“We will probably try producing a different cheese at some point, but we’re very busy at present and don’t want to take our eyes off the ball,” says Tim.
“We know that you can’t keep growing production and getting top-end margins.”