Liquid milk turned to gold

Features Posted 26/04/21
This month Nigel Akehurst visits the Blunt family at Greenacres Farm in Golden Cross, East Sussex to find out more about their thriving dairy goat and cheese business.

Husband and wife team Kevin and Alison Blunt, along with their son Matthew, own and run a dairy goat and award-winning cheese business at Greenacres Farm in Golden Cross, East Sussex.

The six-acre farm is home to a herd of around 180 British Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine goats which are milked twice a day. They are housed in large airy barns and predominantly fed on a diet of hay and grass, spending their days grazing in the main field from March to October.

All the milk produced on the farm is used to make their award-winning Golden Cross and Chabis goats’ cheeses. As a soft cheese it’s a fast turnaround, taking 11 days from liquid milk to finished product, explained Kevin. They also make a sheep’s cheese, named Flower Marie, with ewe’s milk bought from a dairy in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The story began back in 1984 when the couple bought the six-acre smallholding with little more than a collection of small barns and a caravan. From hand milking a few goats and keeping free range chickens, they have evolved the business to produce around 20 tonnes of cheese a year, selling to 30 wholesalers and retailers across the UK. No mean feat considering neither Kevin nor Alison was born into a farming family and neither planned a farming life.

Getting the farming bug

The couple met at university, where Kevin completed a degree in biochemistry and Alison obtained a degree in human biology with a nursing option.

Kevin got the farming bug by helping with the harvest on a farm managed by his soon-to-be stepfather during a summer vacation from university. After university he got a job on a dairy farm outside Appleby in Cumbria, finally ending up as a herdsman on a farm near Melton Mowbray before moving to Golden Cross in 1984.

As a nurse Alison was able to follow Kevin around the country while he gained valuable experience in stock and dairy. Then on a trip to visit Alison’s parents in Eastbourne, they discovered a six-acre smallholding up for sale with barns and a mobile home. Wearing the rose-tinted glasses of youth, they took the plunge.

Factfile

Farm facts

  • 6.5 acre small farm in Golden Cross
  • Six employees – three full time (Kevin, Alison and Matthew), two part time in the dairy (Linda and Sarah) and one on the farm for relief milking and feeding (Jack).
  • 180 milking goats (Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine), which are milked twice a day (6am and 3.30pm, taking around 2 to 2.5 hours)
  • Produce 20 tonnes of cheese per annum (two goats’ cheeses from their own milk (Golden Cross and Chabis) and one sheep’s cheese (Flower Marie) from milk produced by Wayfield Dairy.
  • Finish 150 meat goats at eight to 10 months at 45kg
  • All hay and straw supplied by local farmer Brian Walker
  • All the cheese is sold wholesale via around 30 to 40 retail/wholesale customers.

Starting out on their own

They started out with about 50 chickens and a handful of goats. Gradually they expanded to 100 bird sheds on skids and then managed to buy four old 500-bird battery houses from a neighbouring farm which they converted into free range houses. “We packed for a local wholesaler and sold eggs from the farm gate along with our frozen goats’ milk,” he said.

During these ‘early days’ they lived in a caravan for five years, while trying to get planning permission to build a farmhouse, which they eventually achieved in 1989.

Major turning point

Then fortune struck. A meeting with a Frenchman, Regis Du Sartre, who was selling his goat farming and cheese-making business, was a major turning point. Kevin and Alison were able to buy his goats, milking parlour and cheese-making equipment. As part of the deal they got a couple of his recipes, one of which was based loosely on a Sainte-Maure de Touraine style ash goat log, which they have since refined and perfected to become their most famous cheese – Golden Cross.

As well as buying some milkers from Regis, they also bought a lot of his young stock and have been a closed herd ever since.

“Although we had been going for five years and had the house, getting the recipe and the outlets allowed us to start expanding the goats and slowly grow the business into what it has become today,” said Kevin.

Cheese rooms

In the heart of the farmyard, just opposite the farmhouse and a large cluster of barns, sit the cheese rooms. On my arrival at the farm, Kevin invited me into the cloakroom, where I completed a visitor’s questionnaire, disinfected my hands and put on a face mask, hairnet, white coat and boots.

We then entered an immaculately clean, white walled room, with doors leading to other white walled rooms. I met Kevin’s wife Alison, his son Matthew and part time employee Linda – all dressed in similar attire and busy carrying out various cheese tasks.

Kevin explained to me how it all begins in the ‘make room’, where cheese starter, vegetarian rennet and penicillium candidum are added to the milk in the cheese vat, transferred into 90-litre buckets and left in a warm room for 24 hours to form a curd. The curd is then ladled by hand into the moulds, drained for 24 hours and turned.

The next morning the cheeses are unmoulded and placed on mats and then on racks in a drying room for 24 hours. Each log is then hand salted before being dried for a further one to two days. Before maturing, the cheese is lightly charcoaled by hand (with a sifter like icing sugar on a cake).

The charcoal provides a nice contrast to the whiteness of the goat’s cheese and alters the acidity of the surface of the cheese, which aids maturation and growth of the penicillium mould.

Kevin pointed out the differing floor levels of the various rooms, which have been added to and expanded over the years, marking the evolution of the business.

In the make room they have two cheese vats, a large 2000 litre one that connects via a sophisticated valve to a bulk milk tank located outside, and a smaller one they use for making the sheep’s cheese.

Kevin explained that the larger vat was installed two years ago when they decided to scale up and replace their old bulk milk tank (which was previously located in the cheese dairy) and move to a larger cheese vat, which has allowed them to make every other day. This has allowed them to finish a little earlier on those days, though Kevin remarked: “On the days that we don’t make goat’s cheese we are doing the sheep’s cheese and there is always lots of other work to be done around the cheese each day.” Typically there are two or three people working in the cheese rooms every day, with Kevin and Matthew alternating each day between farm work and cheese work.

After the cheese room tour I ask Kevin what he most enjoys about farming and cheese making.

“I just love seeing the goats looking content, either in the field or barns, and the fact that we are able to produce and sell something that we are really proud of and that customers enjoy,” he said.

“Most of all it’s being able to do this together with Alison and now Matt. Also the fact that we were always around for the three boys growing up and how they enjoy good food because they appreciate the effort involved in producing it.”

I ask how they sell their cheese. “We sell the cheese to around 30 wholesale and retail customers,” he replied. “It grew gradually over the years as we expanded, with wholesalers such as Eastside Cheese, H&B Fine Foods and Neals Yard promoting our product,” he added.

Cheese awards

The business has won numerous awards for its cheeses over the years and I ask Kevin which awards they were most proud of.

“Being the first cheesemakers to win the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association’s James Aldridge Memorial Trophy for The Best British Raw Milk Cheese sponsored and presented by Prince Charles was one,” he replied.

As an aside he explained that James Aldridge Eastside Cheese did a lot to promote their cheese in the early years and came up with the recipe for Flower Marie.

Another highlight came in 2018 when “Golden Cross won the Best British Cheese at the World Cheese Awards and finished in the top 16 from over 3,000 cheeses from around the world”.

Advice to budding cheese makers

For any aspiring cheese makers or dairy farmer thinking of having a go, I ask Kevin if he has any words of advice.

“There is lots of information out there now. The Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association and the School of Artisan Cheese are good places to start. Check out local delis/farm shops to see what local cheeses are already on offer and where there might be a gap.

“Talk to the local environmental health officer before you do anything because you will have to have everything approved before you start,” he said.

Goat dairying

Next we take a tour of the farm and set of buildings. The majority of the nanny goats were out grazing contentedly in the field and seemed happy to pose for a few photos with Kevin.

By then Matthew had changed out of his cheese gear and was on a tractor, bedding up and feeding the goats inside the large airy barns with central passage.

Kevin explained that both he and Matthew share the stock work and twice daily milking on the farm with a relief milker, Jack, who works two days a week.

I ask him what they feed the goats. “The diet is predominantly hay topped up with daily grazing March to October,” Kevin replies.

“They are also fed an 18% dairy goat nut through the parlour; around 1.5kg to 2Kg per head per day, averaging two-and-a-half to three litres per head per day milk production,” he added.

Due to the small acreage, they buy in locally made hay and straw bales from Hankham-based farmer Brian Walker, who also takes away their goat manure.

Previously they supplied him with whey, a byproduct from the cheese dairy, but when he packed up doing pigs they decided to try feeding it to their own goats, an experiment that has proved a big success.

They now drink roughly two litres of it per head per day, and I watched Matthew drive around and fill up plastic water troughs from a large tank in the back of his John Deere gator.

New parlour and auto ID leg bands

At the rear of the large housing barn is a collecting yard and a ramp which leads up to the parlour. Kevin explained that in 1998 they upgraded to a modern 20 in-line parlour with automatic clusters. They started using the auto ID leg bands in 2011. This has allowed them to select the best goats.

“We can produce a similar amount of milk with fewer animals,” said Kevin.

Where they previously had 240 milkers they now have 180. It’s also been good for keeping vet and medicine records, he added.

Kidding and rearing meat goats

To minimise peaks and troughs in their milk supply, they have a spring and autumn kidding block. As a closed herd, on average they keep back about 30 females as replacements, with the remaining 150 male and female kids reared on the farm as meat goats.

These are finished at around eight to ten months, averaging 45kg live weight, with the majority sold to RP Meats Brighton.

“We are happy as long as the meat goats cover the cost of rearing,” said Kevin.

Green technology

Over the years the Blunts have invested in green technology. In 2013 they installed a solar array on the roof of their farm buildings, producing 30Kw/hour - which was the largest they were allowed given the capacity of the local network.

“The system paid for itself within seven years and we receive feed-in tariff payments plus a small amount for exported power. The array also produces at least a third of the power we use through the year,” said Kevin.

In addition to this, they have linked up all the cheese room compressors to a smart water heater so that the heat normally lost to the surroundings as a byproduct during the cooling process is used to heat the hot water for the dairy. This system gets the water to 50°C and it is then given a boost for milking parlour washing out etc.

Covid-19

When the first lockdown closed the hospitality sector, many of their best customers cancelled orders, resulting in more than a few sleepless nights for the Blunts.

With such a massive drop in demand, they scaled back milking as much as possible, leaving the kids on the recently kidded goats to reduce the milk produced. However the majority of the goats still needed to be milked twice daily and they continued to make cheese in slightly smaller quantities.

They were also able to leverage family and friends sending chilled packages of cheese around the UK via parcel-force.

The Blunts also sought financial help from the Government, but like a lot of small businesses found they weren’t eligible for any grants, and the furlough scheme was a non-starter for all full-time staff.

“You can’t furlough yourself if you’re the farmer and cheesemaker and not work in your business,” commented Kevin.

Kevin and Alison stopped taking a salary from the farm, relying on savings, and took up a bounce back loan to support the business.

On the whole they count themselves lucky, having paid off all their previous loans as a relatively mature business.

They were also surprised by the resilience of the sector, with a few of their wholesale customers still willing to take cheeses. Since then, they have also managed to pick up several new customers who have benefited from the rise in online demand for British cheeses and, more recently, the revival of farmers’ markets.

Vital support for British Cheese

In April and May of last year there were a number of high profile campaigns to help save struggling artisan cheese makers. These were led by some retailers and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, who donated his time voluntarily and spoke directly to his Instagram followers urging them to buy a Save British Cheese selection box to avoid food waste and keep businesses afloat.

The awareness generated by these campaigns provided a much-needed shot in the arm for British cheesemakers.

The future

With hospitality venues reopening on 12 April for outdoor dining, the Blunts are feeling more optimistic about the future and gearing up for a return to full production. They are also planning to start taking more time off.

“Once we are through the pandemic Alison and I will be looking to have a little more regular time off and will look to employ at least one more full-time person to help Matt carry on the business,” said Kevin.


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