Meet the new owners of Traditional Cheese Dairy
Drive along one of the lanes that criss-cross Burnt House Farm near Horam, East Sussex, and you may well see owner Joe Delves in a field waving what looks like a vacuum cleaner.
Despite what it looks like, he is not hoovering the grass. Instead, he is actually measuring how much is growing in each field, using an upright device called a plate meter, so he can calculate the exact amount his cows will be able to graze most efficiently.
It’s all part of Delves’ farming mantra, which is focused on efficiency and sustainability rather than chasing volumes.
“Dairy farming is a low-margin game,” he says. “And there are two types of farms. Those that push up volumes to dilute costs. Or those that actually look at the costs. We’re definitely in the second camp.”
A third-generation farmer who took over the business from his father in 2005, Delves has an approach that is influenced by a research trip taken in 2013 to visit dairy farms in the UK, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the US as part of a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. As well as introducing ideas such as efficient paddock grazing and improving pastures with different plants, the trip also convinced him to introduce hardier Jersey cows to the previously all-Holstein herd.
“Wherever I went in the world I saw Jerseys because they can cope with so many different climates and landscapes,” he says. “They’ve got hard feet, handle temperature stress well and are very efficient converters of food into fat and protein. They were thriving in places where most Holsteins would have rolled over and had their hooves in the air.”
The scholarship also highlighted a need to add value to the farm’s milk, which led to the acquisition of the Traditional Cheese Dairy in nearby Stonegate in 2020. Previously run by the Dyball family, the company is best known in Sussex for Burwash Rose and Lord of the Hundreds. After learning how to make cheese with the Dyballs, Delves moved production to a purpose-built dairy on the home farm in June 2021, where it has become very much a family affair.
Delves’ wife Becky handles orders and packaging, while mum Liz looks after maturation. Dad Andy, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, is the head cheesemaker – a role he wasn’t expecting to have after a life spent as a farmer and then as a local pastor.
“I was meant to be retired, but Joe had other ideas,” he says. “But seriously, I get bored easily and I like to be busy. We used to be price-takers, not price-makers. We got what people wanted to give us for our milk. But the Traditional Cheese Dairy is an opportunity to make a premium product that recognises its true value.”
The dairy currently makes two or three times a week, producing around 1.2 tonnes of cheese a month, much of which is sold by Brighton-based wholesaler The Cheese Man. Other customers include Harvey & Brockless and Curd & Cure, while direct sales to local retailers are also on the up. The cheese business now brings in almost as much as the farm with plans to bring in a new cheesemaker to work alongside Andy.
It means there will be plenty more grass measuring going on in the future, or as Andy Delves puts it, with a pastoral turn of phrase: “Grass underpins the business. What we do is turn sunshine into food.”