So you want to make cheese?

THE SCIENCE behind cheese production is easily taught, says Chris Ashby, a cheese-making tutor based at Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire. But the art of making consistently superb cheese – not to mention balancing two farm businesses – requires a something a little extra.

On-farm processing is not an easy option, with work often starting before the first milking and lasting late into the evening. It also requires a lot of investment and masses of market research, adds independent marketing consultant John Taylerson.

Where do I start?
Doing some market research is a good place to start, says Mr Taylerson. The market for home-made cheese is expanding and there are plenty of opportunities for enterprising producers.

Research your own local area; it may be saturated with soft cheeses and devoid of cheddars, or vice versa. Ask yourself who your customers are likely to be. How many are there? How often will they buy and how much will they pay?

“Remember that the average person eats 10kg of cheese a year, not all of which will be supplied by a single producer,” he says. “This will help in estimating what level of production may be required.”

Calculate, too, how much it will cost to get your product into the customer’s hands, he says. Combine that with a thorough examination of the market and potential competitors and you should have an idea of how to price your cheese.

Where do I sell it?
Many farmers start off by supplying local farmers’ markets, which can be a good way to reach customers. But the travelling and labour required does mean extra work in an already-busy schedule. And don’t think farmers’ markets are an easy route into selling cheese.

“To sell at farmers’ markets you need to make sure that your product is special enough to command a premium; trying to undercut other people is not the way to do it,” says Mr Taylerson. “Supplying customers or retailers direct can be profitable, but doesn’t offer much security.

“Partnering up with a good wholesaler is probably, in the long run, one of the best things you can do. You must not tie yourself to one customer, and remember that wholesalers have access to a number of customers.”

Buildings and equipment
Identify a practical building which meets environmental health standards and can be used as the cheese dairy, advises Ms Ashby. Make sure you involve the local environmental health officer during the planning stage.

You may be lucky enough to find a local cheese-making facility available to hire, thereby avoiding the need for hefty set-up costs, but these are few and far between. Another cost-saving move is to buy used equipment, though the expanding market means supplies of second-hand equipment are limited.

A small pasteuriser (1000-1500 litres/hour), for instance, costs about 20,000 new or 1000 second-hand. Opting out of pasteurisation altogether can also save a lot of money.

“Set-up costs can vary greatly,” she says. “I know people who have set up for 25,000 and others who have spent 250,000, it’s difficult to generalise.”

Holland is a good source of second-hand equipment. Or think laterally and adapt an old bulk milk tank into a cheese vat.

Although buying used equipment is initially cheaper, it is often more expensive in the long run, warns Mr Taylerson. “Be very careful with what you buy and don’t forget that installation often costs as much as the machine itself.”

Are there grants?
Grants under DEFRA’s Rural Enterprise scheme or your local regional development agency may be available to help with set-up costs or marketing. Search out a consultant who knows the rules and objectives for each grant scheme in the local area.

“But don’t rely on grants as a route to profitability,” says Mr Taylerson. “Your project should stand on its own two feet; use the grants simply to accelerate your path to profitability.”

You will need to obtain a health mark from the environmental health officer, based on your ability to manage the risks associated with their site, says Mr Taylerson. Contact the Rural Payments Agency to register as a direct supplier, too.

As well as requiring separate recipes and handling, soft and hard cheeses are also packaged differently, says Ms Ashby. Hard cheeses are often vacuum packed to extend their shelf life, although this can detract from their farmhouse presentation.

Blue and mould ripened cheeses need to breathe, so require a looser wrapping, while soft cheeses are high in moisture and are often packaged in laminated paper.

Good packaging is vital for a product’s success in the market-place, adds Mr Taylerson. “You have got to differentiate your product. It has got to look the part if you are aiming for a premium marke, but that does not necessarily mean the packaging has to cost the earth.”

For every 1000 litres of milk processed into cheese, about 860 litres of whey is produced, which must be safely disposed of. Usually it is fed to pigs, drained into the slurry system or removed from the farm, sometimes at a cost to the farmer.

“Producers should plan how to dispose of the whey,” says Mr Taylerson. “It can be shrunk using reverse osmosis and the water used for cleaning, but that all costs money. Mind you, it wouldn’t be as much as if the Environment Agency found it in the local brook.”