By Rory Stone of Highland Fine Cheeses
Ireland’s dairy industry has a lot in common with its Scottish counterpart. Both are on the Western fringes of Europe, with temperate climates, plenty of rainfall and rich, deep soils which support some of the finest grazing in the world.
But there the similarities start to diverge. Ireland’s milk production has increased by more than 50% from 2008 to in excess of eight billion litres now, and exports are north of €4 billion, making dairy the country’s largest food and drink export category.
In Scotland, the picture is – how can one put it? – less rosy. Scottish production typically ranges between 1.2 billion and 1.4 billion litres a year and has been bumbling along at this unambitious rate since 2003.
As they say, it’s not a competition – but Ireland’s winning.
Making money out of milk – and its by-product, cheese, in whose sector I operate – has never been an easy task, and the industry has been looking for magic bullets ever since the troubles of First Milk in 2015 when the mega-cooperative struggled to plug a multi-million cashflow hole by putting the bite on farmers.
The year before that unsavoury episode, the Scottish Dairy Growth Board was established with the remit of identifying the challenges facing dairy farmers and cheesemakers – the latter take 40% of all production – and fostering a collective will to overcome them.
In a spirit of positivity, it is only fair to applaud the ambitions of the Board, though its tangible achievements are still struggling to catch up. For instance, it claims a 30% increase in cheese production, but most of that comes from one giant, French-owned factory in Wigtonshire.
Nonetheless, the ambitions are there: the Board aims to generate £600 million in new sales, including £200 million of new cheese sales, £150 million from new product development and £150 million from fresh milk exports.
Let’s draw a veil for a moment over the fact that the new products proposed – milk powder and UHT – cannot even in the most rabid PR man’s dreams be described as new (and there is no way we can compete on price with existing producers). And to ship tankerloads of fresh milk round the oceans of the world is, frankly, ludicrous.
But at least the Board is making the effort and, even if it falls short of these targets, its activities may well catalyse an increase in production which is long overdue, and well within the capabilities of the country’s hard-working dairymen and cheesemakers.
By far the largest slice of the cheese market in Scotland is Cheddar, originally favoured because it stored well over the country’s long winters. But increasingly small-scale independent producers are making inroads with blues, soft cheeses and sheep and goat’s milk products.
These artisans – many are farmers or farmer’s wives – have formed the Fine Cheesemakers of Scotland to raise the profile of their cheeses in the rest of the UK and to find and exploit export markets. Similar ambitions, in fact – just on a smaller scale – to the Dairy Growth Board.
But perhaps instead of chatting amongst ourselves, we should be turning our eyes to the Emerald Isle to see how they are getting things so right.
It is instructive, I think, that while we have closed down the wonderful agricultural college at Auchencruive in Ayrshire – which turned out so many far-sighted and successful farmers – Ireland has established a dedicated Centre of Excellence for cheesemaking at the University of Cork.
It advises, guides and supports new and existing participants in the industry, and encourages the artisan sector to actively combine to promote and sell not only their own products but each other’s, creating economies of scale and slashing transport costs.
The Scottish Dairy Growth Board says in its latest strategy report that 15 new international markets have been entered, and that also is to be applauded, but flying salesmen in suits with tartan ties round the world is only a part of the answer.
Ideally, Scottish cheesemakers need to upsell as the whisky industry has so successfully done, and promote their wares as premium products.
I know, I know. Cheese is just a grocery item and we will never achieve the heights of the Ardbeg Distillery, which recently sold a single cask of Islay Malt for £16 million. But my goodness, no harm can come from trying to emulate their methods.