22 October 1999

YORKSSHEEPCHEESEFIRMWINSFAVOUR

Smiling and saying cheese

is something that one

Yorkshire farming family

have been doing for a more

than a decade now. But, as

with any diversification, it

hasnt been all smiling. Its

been a lot of learning and a

lot of hard work. Tim Relf

catches up with Shepherds

Purse, a business renowned

for its sheeps milk cheese

ITS fingers crossed at Leachfield Grange – and it will be until Nov 10.

Thats the day when Judy Bell discovers if her business, Shepherds Purse, has won a coveted Supermarketing award. Its Yorkshire blue cheese, sold by ASDA, is already down to the shortlist in the dairy category, marking the latest in a long line of successes.

Established as a farm diversification at Thirsk, the outfit has a turnover of £0.5m, made 55t of cheese last year and is expanding.

The range covers 11 products, with 80% of sales claimed by three – the sheeps milk cheeses, Mrs Bells Blue and Yorkshire Feta, and the cows milk-based Yorkshire Blue.

The business became a limited company in May, separated from the farm partnership. And with agriculture in the doldrums, the arable enterprises – which originally backed Shepherds Purse – have now taken a back seat.

Among their outlets are a handful of supermarkets, the first of which was Tesco in 1994. "That was the breakthrough," says Judy.

Supermarkets give Shepherds Purse a big market and broad geographical coverage. But close contact with the individual stores – even with the deli staff in each – is important, she stresses.

"Once you have the products on the counter, you think you are there, but youre not. Yorkshire Blue sits on the counter at a higher price than Stilton – its only when the guy behind the counter asks customers if they would like a taste and can give a description and tantalise the shopper that you get a sale. Once people try it, you get converts."

&#42 Price issue

Price, however, can be an issue with Shepherds Purse cheeses retailing between £4 and £9/lb.

While the cheese has "sold itself by word of mouth" so far, more marketing is now crucial. The plan is to rationalise the range – and grow to generate economies of scale. "We need to be three times as big as we are now," says Judys husband Nigel. "Its like arable farming. If you have 1000 acres of cereals, youll have a living; if you have 300 acres, you havent."

Shepherds Purse has come a long way. The original idea was conceived in the 1970s when Judy and her then-seven-year-old son, Justin, had the chance to make cheese at a back-in-time visitor centre. "I was fascinated by the process," she recalls.

She heard, a few years later, about the intolerance many people suffer towards bovine products. "That was the germ of our idea." By then it was the late 1980s and diversification was the buzzword. "Id never milked a sheep. Id never milked anything. And I hadnt made cheese in any way." But the farm established a small flock of sheep which was expanded – ultimately, however, selling it – preferring now to buy the milk from "satellite" farms.

Judy started "playing around" with recipes and visiting shops. And so the business was born. It was a new market. Getting people to try it was a hurdle. When they tasted it, they liked it, but getting them to taste it was another matter. The first Yorkshire Show at which the business exhibited, 10 years ago, was typical of those early days. "Probably 25% of the people that walked past our stand werent even going to taste it."

The same year saw them get among the prizes at the Nantwich Cheese Show – something thats been repeated many times since. "A real confidence booster." The event is, she says, the main shop window. "Having products there, year in year out, you get noticed and if you are in the prize tickets, people take more notice."

&#42 Wonderful feeling

"Its nice when we get favourable comments and win prizes. Its a wonderful feeling – but its been hard work."

Its been a sharp learning curve since – but sustainable growth is the key. "You learn by your mistakes. This is the first time I have run a business," says Judy. "When businesses grow steadily, however, they have more staying power. If they grow too rapidly, they can easily implode.

"I have always had the confidence that it will get there – and I still do – but we are not there yet."

RICHBREAKFASTTRADITION

VISITORS to this country should order three meals – breakfast, breakfast and breakfast, so writer Somerset Maugham once said. And visitors were reminded of this at the launch of the Farmhouse Breakfast 2000 initiative in London earlier this month.

Culminating in January, it aims to raise awareness of Britains rich heritage of regional breakfast products, says Helen Wood of the HGCA, backing the venture with Food From Britain and the MLC.

"It is a dynamic partnership between farmers and regional food producers to encourage customers to learn about, search out and, most importantly, buy these great regional products," she says.

TV chef Rosemary Moon, speaking at the event, described breakfast as the "most important meal of the day.

"Anyone who has had breakfast is bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and more likely to succeed. Children who have breakfast will perform better at school. They are less likely to truant and will absorb the information given to them at a better rate."

Regional breakfast trivia:

1: Which is the longest

sausage in Britain?

a Oxford b Newmarket c Cumberland

2: What is added to

laverweed to make laverbread?

a Oats b Wheat c Barley

3: For what occasion was

the coburg loaf invented?

a Queen Victorias birth

b Her marriage to Albert c Her jubilee

4: What shape is a

Scottish square loaf?

a Round b Square c Rectangular

5: What is the name

for the mutton ham

that comes from Herdwick sheep?

a Mutham b Macon c Bacam