Posted: 31/03/2020

Cheesemaker Shepherds Purse offers lifeline to struggling milk supplier

A Yorkshire cheesemaker is hoping that reformatting the production of one of its cheeses will help save their sheep’s milk supplier in dire straits due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The farmer who supplies Shepherds Purse Cheeses with its sheep’s milk has told the producer that out of the 22 processors that usually buy milk, he is now only supplying two. 

“He was in absolute distress about what to do with his milk,” said Caroline Bell, MD of Shepherds Purse.

In a bid to keep the supply chain running, the cheesemaker has decided to bring forward a project to reformat its Mediterranean salad cheese, Yorkshire Fettle, into feta-style packs with new moulds.

Caroline Bell of Shepherds Purse Cheeses

“We’re trying to escalate that project so we can take more milk from our sheep’s milk farmers, just to try and keep them going – taking on the risk ourselves,” said Bell. 

“We’re probably three to four weeks away from having a product that is ready to leave us, but we should have a continuous supply after that as long as we don’t encounter any other disasters between now and then.”

She said that the company needs a little more commitment from its customers to stock the product and then they can go ahead with production and investing in new packaging. “Obviously, that’s cash we would like to keep in the business right now, but we believe in trying to create this lifeline for the sheep’s milk, so we’re going to have to take that risk,” she said.

Bell said that Shepherds Purse is taking a holistic view of how to respond to coronavirus and hopes that others will do the same, stressing that communication at all levels of the industry is key.

“We don’t operate without our customers and we don’t operate without our suppliers, so we need to stay in as close communication with them as possible, so we know what’s going on because there is so much changing all the time,” she said. “And we also need to be transparent and open with them so they can make decisions they need to make.”

She has also made a plea to retailers to maintain stock of products like Shepherds Purse cheeses to keep small producers alive and is confident that consumer demand for fine foods will return after the initial surge in panic buying.

“Retailers have dropped a lot of products in that first week, which has had the knock-on effect that producers stop producing thinking that customers don’t want their product, but in the coming weeks, I can’t believe that people aren’t going to want decent food. 

“We were very clear with our customers from the beginning that if you stop buying now, you may not have us here in two weeks.”

Emphasising the need for communication and collaboration across the trade, Bell made a heartfelt plea for retailers to continue to support small producers. “Pick up the phone to other producers, pick up the phone to your customers and your suppliers and try to get a firm grasp on what is happening out there. 

“Don’t drop the small producers, because you’re dropping a whole supply chain that supports you. Share as much as you can so that people are in a position to make informed decisions, and just try to consider the knock-on effect of your actions.”

She added: “That’s what we are trying to do with the sheep’s milk. It may be a sensible economic decision to say people may not want those speciality products, so we’ll stop that. But that isn’t right in our minds. We would be letting down our suppliers and it would hurt us down the line. We are just doing what we think is right.”

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