How Fen Farm in Bungay are part of a raw milk revolution
PUBLISHED: 12:48 20 September 2019
Kat Mager Photography/Fen Farm Dairy
Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore are part of a raw milk revolution with products that are not just tasty but could play a role in a healthier future | Words: Jayne Lindill
It's been a busy year for dairy farmers Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore.
Investment at Fen Farm in Bungay has quadrupled the size of the building that houses their cheese making operation.
Sales of Fen Farm's award-winning Baron Bigod Brie-de-Meaux style cheese have risen 30 per cent, while their raw milk and butter continue to win customers who appreciate the authentic flavours and healthy qualities of such natural products.
There have been more awards, the establishment of the Raw Milk Producers Association, and there was Jonny's trip to Iceland (more of that later). "It's going really well," he says, with typical Suffolk understatement.
The Crickmores - Jonny and Dulcie, and Jonny's parents, Frances and Graham who are part of the family business - invested £500,000 in the new building, part-funded with a £152,000 grant from the EU Leader programme.
It is custom-designed to create optimum conditions for making Baron Bigod. There are specialised rooms for each stage of the complex process of making and maturing cheese, so the perfect temperature and humidity conditions can be controlled at all times.
It's the latest stage of a targeted diversification programme to build a sustainable business for the 21st century.
Things weren't always this good for the Crickmores. Eight years ago they were barely able to make a profit and at the mercy of the commodity milk market.
It was in a bid to create a brighter future, that the family took steps to diversify the farm, and began selling their raw cows' milk direct to the public from the farm gate.
Deciding to make cheese was the next step. After seeking advice from master cheesemakers in France, they switched their dairy herd from the mainstream Holstein breed in favour of Montebeliarde which are renowned for the cheesemaking quality of their milk.
Now half the farm's 290 milking cows are pure-bred Montebeliarde and the others are Montbeliarde-Holstein crosses.
Since 2012 cheese production has grown to about 60 tonnes per year, which is sold to farm shops, delis, restaurants and online.
The new building takes production capacity to around 100 tonnes per year, not that Jonny wants to grow so large that their cheese becomes just another mainstream factory product.
His aim is to continue to grow sales of Baron Bigod, possibly even make a second cheese, but always ensure customers have a cheese which is not made for a supermarket.
Baron Bigod is widely acclaimed as one of the best cheeses being made in the UK. It won a Gold Medal at the British Cheese Awards 2017, and the James Aldridge Memorial Award for the Best British Raw Milk Cheese 2018.
Jonny and Dulcie won the Food and Farming Excellence Award in the 2019 Suffolk Business Awards and were named Best Manufacturer at the National Rural Business Awards.
They also won Entrepreneur of the Year in the ActionCOACH Business Excellence Awards, Dairy Innovator of the Year at the 2018 British Farming Awards, and were honoured as Food Hero (outstanding achievement) in the 2019 Eat Suffolk Food and Drink Awards.
Never one to keep success to himself, however, Jonny shares his knowledge and experience with other dairy farmers and producers who want to go down the raw milk route.
He's been instrumental in setting up the Raw Milk Producers' Association, a co-operative owned and run by its members, which provides information and advice on producing raw milk safely, facilitates communication and collaboration between producers, and works with industry regulators such as the Food Standards Agency. Two-thirds of raw producers in the UK have signed up already.
"It's there for education, a place for people to go to if they need help, and to help grow the raw milk industry in a safe way," says Jonny. Raw milk has its detractors who claim it is unsafe to consume and carries risks to health.
"It can be high risk if you get it wrong," says Jonny. "In that way, it's no different to any other high risk food, such as sushi. That's why we want to make sure people get it right."
Indeed, Jonny and his fellow producers sought the collaboration of the Food Standards Agency in setting up the association. "It's a new approach," he says, "a more constructive, understanding relationship."
So refreshing is this new collaborative style that Jonny has been invited to the House of Commons to share the experience with MPs.
Support for raw milk is growing. Many people believe it is higher in nutritional content than pasteurised milk, and that nutrients naturally found in it, such as probiotics, vitamin D and immunoglobulins (antibodies), boost the immune system and reduce the risk of allergies in children and adults.
Pasteurisation was instituted early in the 20th century to combat TB, infant diaorrhea, undulant fever and other diseases caused by poor animal nutrition and unsanitary production methods.
But, it is claimed, pasteurisation destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content and kills beneficial bacteria.
Jonny points to studies that show that while we have become better at preventing deaths from food poisoning, with a downward trend, the opposite is true of food allergies, which are increasing at the same rate, as food has become over processed and sterile.
"This is why it's important that we do eat whole foods and non sterile foods from when we're young," he says. "We're in a great place now as we're able to massively reduce risk from non pasteurised milk with modern technology, such as on-farm testing, rapid refrigeration of milk and incredibly good hygiene and animal health on the farm."
Jonny admits the real health benefits of raw milk are still unknown. "There's still not enough data," he says, "but I know from talking to people that it does help with allergies and helps the immune system."
And, as attitudes change towards overuse of antibiotics and the effects of consuming over-processed food, he believes raw milk will have an important role to play in the future.
It is with an eye on the future that Jonny recently made a trip to Iceland to spend time learning how to make skyr yogurt from a farmhouse producer.
He even came away with an authentic culture to get his own production started. Jonny and the team are now working on it, using skimmed milk left over from butter making. If all goes well, the first skyr could be available to the public by the start of 2020.
Another chapter in the entrepreneurial story of Fen Farm Dairy.
Find out more
Fen Farm Dairy is part of a community of progressive and passionate small-scale cheese makers all over the UK. Now they have teamed up to offer a quarterly subscription.
Every three months, subscribers receive a perfectly ripe Baron Bigod cheese, plus a carefully chosen selection of handmade cheeses from small British farmhouse cheese makers.
The box contains a minimum of five cheeses (around 1kg of cheese), guided tasting notes, pairing suggestions and interesting facts about the cheeses and their producers.
Subscription details: £35 per box (charged once every three months). Manage your own subscription and cancel anytime you wish. Free postage always.