Posted: 14/03/2019

Cheesemakers facing labour shortage and cost rises as Brexit approaches

Artisan cheesemakers are struggling to find staff as the number of EU workers falls due to uncertainty around Brexit.

The situation is so serious that companies are being forced to put up wages, invest in machinery and launch major reviews of how they do business to try to overcome the problem. 

Lynher Dairies in Cornwall has been forced to farm nettles for its Cornish Yarg cheese for the first time this year, after struggling to find enough people to pick them in the wild. The company, which traditionally employs foragers to pick several tonnes of wild nettles to coat its leaf-wrapped cheese, has teamed up with Duchy College to grow the plants as part of a Brexit Resilience project.

“Our nettle pickers have for some time been mainly Eastern Europeans,” said owner Catherine Mead. “There are some 20,000 in Cornwall who are down here picking fruit, veg and flowers but suffice to say their numbers are dwindling and that is very alarming.” 

Ten greenhouses are being planted with nettle seeds with Lynher hoping to get 20% of the leaves it needs from the project. 

Labour shortages have affected the nettle leaf gathering process at Lynher Dairies for its famous Yarg

According to the Office of National Statistics, the net number of people moving to the UK from the EU countries in the year ending June 2018 was 74,000 – the lowest it has been since 2012. Meanwhile there was the biggest increase in net non-EU immigration in a decade with numbers up 245,000. 

At Gringa Dairy, which makes Mexican-style cheese in Peckham, owner Kristen Schnepp said recruiting workers had become much harder. 

“We compete with the hospitality industry in London for staff and there are shortages right across the entire sector, which is definitely due to Brexit,” she said. “Wage costs are going up and skill levels are going down because there is a smaller pool of people to choose from.”

Gringa currently employs nine people and has been trying to recruit another member of staff since the start of the new year without success, after a former employee returned to Italy.  

At the Bath Soft Cheese company, owner Hugh Padfield said that farm labour costs were rising and that more dairy farms could move to robotic milking systems in a bid to keep milk prices down.

This story appeared in the March issue of Fine Food Digest. You can read more on the digital edition here.

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