JOHN ALVIS”S family has been producing cheese at Lye Cross Farm since 1952, and he attributes the firm”s huge success to the family”s philosophy of wasting nothing. “Integration is the key to the business,” he says. “We”ve evolved using the by-product from one part of the business as the fuel for another part.
“Mr Alvis, a co-director of the firm with brother Michael, owns and rents 1310ha (3250 acres) of land near Bristol, on which he runs 1000 milking cows. Most calves are used as replacements for the dairy herd and the 450-head beef herd, with all milk being processed into cheese. Whey from cheese making is fed to 30,000 finishing pigs which are kept nearby.
Manure from the livestock is spread on the land to boost fertility, and whole-crop maize, wheat and grass silage are all grown and fed on-farm. Even the cheese offcuts are put to good use, being chopped and packaged as grated cheese for retailers. “We don”t waste much,” says Mr Alvis.
With so many ventures and 105 staff it is not surprising Mr Alvis is a strong advocate of delegation. As well the farming enterprises, Alvis Bros produces 2700t of cheese a year, selling to supermarkets and through their own farm shop – which itself has a turnover of £1.5m a year.
They also let numerous residential, industrial and storage properties, run a busy contracting business, help to educate 5000 school children a year and are in the process of developing 10,000sq ft of office space. In total the business now has an annual turnover of £15m.
“We believe passionately in devolved responsibility as it encourages people to take pride in their work and generates some healthy competition between the farm managers,” says Mr Alvis. “We”re looking for farm managers with wellies not desks.”
Meeting consumers” demands is critical in any business, he says.
“We”ve moved away from volume into value-added – that”s the future.” About 65% of the cheese produced is organic – sales grew by 35% and 16% in the past two years respectively, and the current growth target is 14%.
Alvis Bros” three dairy farms produce 6.8m litres of milk a year, and the firm buys in another 20m litres from local farms and the Organic Milk Suppliers” Co-Operative. All milk is processed on-site and Lye Cross Farm cheese is now the biggest selling organic cheese in the UK.
Stockists include Sainsbury, the Co-Op, Mole Valley Farmers, wholesalers, exporters and food manufacturers, and of course the farm shop. The cheese is also sold under the Yeo Valley Organic range in Tesco and Waitrose.
The firm supplies all of Sainsbury”s organic cheese direct, and the retailer makes up one-third of Alvis Bros” income from cheese. “Clearly we need to build the rest of the marketing portfolio,” says Mr Alvis. But with the right relationship dealing with a supermarket doesn”t have to be a one-sided agreement. “It”s like any relationship – you”ve got to manage it.”
Alvis Bros has recruited the help of a professional sales and marketing director, Mike O”Brien, to build markets and deal with supermarket buyers. “The fundamental thing is that most of us farmers are hopeless at selling,” says Mr Alvis. “Once you accept that and decide that the only way to do it is to employ a professional, you”ve cracked the problem.”
A dialogue between the bosses of each organisation also helps to iron out any niggling problems. “That gives our guy the confidence to stand his ground. We are finding more pressure on providing more service that in pressing prices down.”
Despite the firm”s success Mr Alvis is not one to rest on his laurels. He is currently looking to exploit potential new markets by adding red clover to his grass leys to boost Omega-3 content in milk. “It wouldn”t surprise me if that lifted the organic milk market quite considerably.”
Operations director Nick Green says there are also plenty of opportunities to increase milk production and the contracting work, or even go into waste management. But many decisions are on hold until the impact of the CAP Reform becomes clear.