CHANGE: Diversify, Adapt and Pivot
“Since I was young, I have liked growing things, whether that was calves, pumpkins, music, or a business. I love something that is long in the making, and hard work, but which, when I get to the end of it, I can look back on with satisfaction that it has been worthwhile.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page
Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore talk to Suffolk Director
For anyone local to Suffolk and keeping abreast with the news, most will have heard of Baron Bigod, and the husband and wife team behind the awarding winning cheese, Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy in Bungay.
Yet their story from dairy farmer to cheese manufacturer isn’t unique. Affected by today’s economic backdrop, generally family farms – if they want to survive – are having to pivot and change their offering. Most are moving on from being traditional arable, dairy and livestock farmers supplying to the wholesale market, to become fully-fledged production businesses, retailing direct to the end consumer.
At 42, Jonny is the third generation of the Crickmore family at Fen Farm. His father Graham, having worked on the farm from the age of eight, inherited the 13-acre dairy farm from an uncle and his older sister.
However, together Jonny and Dulcie have diversified the family business, becoming the first farmer in the region to dispense raw milk direct to the consumer, and then to bolt on a pioneering artisan cheese and butter making business. Baron Bigod, a traditional Brie-de-Meaux style cheese is the most well-known of their products, having recently been awarded Best British Cheese Brand at the Fine Food Digest Awards 2023.
But what is the story behind the transition from dairy farmer to world-renowned cheese maker?
Jonny explains, “I grew up on Fen Farm. We were a small farm with a herd of 50 cows, a few chickens and some pigs. I have two younger brothers, but unlike them I always wanted to be a farmer. From the age of four, I was sneaking out of bed before dawn and following my dad into the cowshed to help him. I enjoyed the animals and milking the cows. I liked being outside and getting dirty; I liked just growing things.
“One particular early memory I have is growing pumpkins. I loved pumpkins and would keep the seeds, plant them out, feed and water them, trying to make sure the next crop was bigger and better than the last one.
“When they were ready, I loaded them onto a trolley which I placed by the side of the road with an ‘honesty box’ made out of an old Quality Street tin with a hole drilled in it, and a sign saying, ‘For Sale £1.50 each’. I would rush home from school every day, very excited about opening the tin to find out how much money was in there.”
Jonny was 24 and Dulcie was 22 when they met at The Green Dragon pub in Bungay in 2004. Although Jonny had spent his whole life working and living on the family farm, Dulcie’s background was quite different.
“I was a local girl, born in Halesworth, but my whole young life had been dedicated to becoming a dancer, it was the only thing I wanted to do. But when I was 19, I injured my back and that put paid to my dream of moving to London to train to become a professional. As a result I didn’t know what I wanted to do. However, growing up Mum had taught me to sew as a hobby, and as I loved it, I decided to study as a Costume Designer, and picked up work doing alterations and making bridal dresses on a self-employed basis. I started small but in just a couple of years, the workload and my experience had grown to an extent that in 2006, I applied for, and landed, the Head of Wardrobe position at the Theatre Royal in Norwich.“
Pumpkins and Bungay Halloween Festival
Whilst going out together, Dulcie would work full-time, helping out occasionally on the farm. Yet, one thing that they both did together, was a continuation of the passion Jonny had for pumpkins.
As he explains, “over the years, I was intent on unlocking the secret to growing a good sized pumpkin, and I learnt through trial and error that it was having the right variety of seed, planting it in well fertilised soil and giving it just the right amount of water.
“Then in the lead up to Halloween in 2007, Dulcie and I started holding pumpkin carving parties using what was harvested from our pumpkin patch; we would light them with tea candles and place them along Bridge Street in Bungay on Halloween night, where they would face the cars coming down the street.
“The first year, we had about 70 and as it was a particularly old street, it was quite a sight. The next year, we did the same but with 100 pumpkins carved. The street was shut off and a 1,000 people came to have a look. The next year 200 carved pumpkins brought in 2,000 people to Bungay for the Halloween Festival, making it one of the biggest in the country. The snowball effect was that eventually so many people were visiting the small market town, that no one could actually see the pumpkins, so it was decided in 2011 to cancel the event.”
However, although disappointing, the curtailment of the event wasn’t such a bad thing for Jonny and Dulcie. Having got married earlier that year on Waiheke Island off the coast of North Island in New Zealand, and back home at Fen Farm, their time was consumed with a new business opportunity.
“At that time, the dairy industry was so negative,” says Jonny.
“We were running a conventional farm, working long hours and not making any headway. My gut was telling me we had to do something different.”
“We thought about going into free range hens but, as we only knew how to be dairy farmers, we decided to go on a research trip to free range egg farms.
“However, what caught our eye were the little sheds that farmers were selling their eggs from at the side of the road. The amount of people buying eggs in this way fascinated me, and it raised the question of “why don’t we dairy farmers sell our own milk from the farm gate?”
Upscaling the business
So, they painted a garden shed with a cow print and put it on the roadside where people could easily pull up and park. They then filled up bottles with raw milk direct from their cows, attached a luggage label which had been printed using the home printer in their kitchen, and sold the bottles from the shed using an honesty box for payment.
“We quickly realised that we could sell our milk direct to the customer and make 50p a litre profit, whereas if we sold to the wholesalers, we could only achieve 1p a litre profit,” Dulcie continues. “But the real point of difference between us and a shop, was that it was raw milk straight from the cows on the farm and people loved the taste. It also tapped into a time many years ago, when people used to visit the farms directly to buy their produce.”
Sales took off very quickly, and the couple realised they needed to scale up the process. They were looking on the internet and found a milk vending machine that was made in Italy. Never having been used in the UK, late in 2011, Jonny and Dulcie took £6,000 from the farm account and invested it in purchasing one of the machines, where people would pay at the machine, and use their own containers for the raw milk dispensed.
“Starting to sell raw milk altered our thought process, and what it meant to go from a commodity to a brand, says Jonny.
“Up until then, growth and success had been all about how many cows you had, and how much land. But doing things this way, we didn’t need to buy more to enable growth, we were just working smartkicker.”
“It’s a weird world that us farmers live in, as all our money is tied up in the assets of the farm and not in cash. It was quite rare to see farmers doing things the way we were, but as a couple we were restless, and wanted to find ways of doing things differently.
“As dairy farmers, we had the same size herd and the same amount of land, but we were adding value to our milk. We kick-started a trend that was followed by other farmers, and we are proud of that.
“Soon, we took on the UK distribution rights to sell the milk vending machines to other farmers; we now have amazing stories of farmers who were about to give up, and then they bought a vending machine and are now having great success.
“However, suddenly you have all these farmers producing raw milk, and there is an accountability that comes with that, in ensuring best practice and customer safety are promoted. So, we worked with the Food Standards Agency, with an aim to support all raw milk producers to operate responsibly.”
Testament to this is that Jonny is Chair of the Raw Milk Producers Association, a co-operative society owned and run by its members that he co-founded.
“There is a big difference between being a farmer and an end food producer and there are lots of things you need to learn, usually through trial, error, and experience.”
In 2012, feeling restless, the couple looked to ways they could add more value to the raw milk production, and they decided they would like to branch out into cheese making.
Filling a gap in the British cheese market
“When we decided to make cheese, we talked to our family and friends and, through a family connection, we were introduced to Neals Yard Dairy, a London artisanal cheese retailer and wholesaler,” Dulcie continues. “I was on maternity leave from my job at the Theatre Royal, as we had just had our son Arthur, but we paid them a visit and talked to the cheesemakers, and we started to put the puzzle together about what type of cheese we were going to make, and who we would sell it to.”
One thing the couple discovered, was that the only cheese that Neals Yard sold that wasn’t British made, was the Brie-de-Meaux. So, they set about filling what they thought was a gap in the market.
“However, we were slightly naïve, as there was a good reason for this style of cheese not yet being made in Britain,” says Jonny.
“We set about doing some research and one of the first things we did was find a French cheesemaker, who could advise us on what to do. We were introduced to Ivan Larcher who lived in The Limousin region. He told us that Brie is a complicated cheese, and to make a product that was good quality, we would need to change our herd of cows at Fen Farm, to a breed that produced milk with better cheesemaking qualities.
“He advised Montbéliarde, an ancient breed that originates from the French Alps; they don’t give as much milk, but what they do produce is protein rich, flavoursome and perfect for making Brie-de-Meaux.”
So, Jonny went over to the Jura region in France to take a look at the Montbéliardes. He returned having purchased 70 cows, which were then transported back to Fen Farm, replacing some of the existing dairy herd. An old barn was then renovated to use as a cheesemaking facility and, in 2013 with the cheese facilities completed, Ivan came over, and with his help, the team set about making Baron Bigod Brie-de-Meaux.
“We needed so much advice and guidance when we first started,” Dulcie explains. “We talked to whoever we could in the industry. The whole of the cheese community is very open in the UK.”
“We had no business plan or strategy; we just had an idea and we thought there might be something in it. The only thought was that we wanted to use our raw milk and add it into another added value product.”
As time went on, more skills in cheesemaking were learnt from another French cheesemaker, Thierry Lerendu, who was happy to share his knowledge in exchange for Jonny and Dulcie to teach him how to speak English.
When production of Baron Bigod first started, 16, 3kg wheels were produced a week at Fen Farm. By autumn 2014, it was up to 40 to 50 wheels a week. That same year when Jonny and Dulcie’s daughter, Ottilie, came along, Dulcie gave up her job at the Theatre Royal, and took over the sales and marketing function, as well as managing the orders which were coming in thick and fast.
“To grow and make the cheese better, we had monthly tastings with Neals Yard which gave us points for improvement,” Jonny says. “The French are extremely good at cheesemaking, but it could be difficult getting hold of the information – we’d often find ourselves scavenging the internet for YouTube tutorials!”
The result is that today Baron Bigod is now officially the finest British cheese brand. Sold internationally and used by many of the UK’s top chefs, it is one of only a handful of its type in the world, to be made by the farmer on the farm.
Produced in three different sizes, on average 3,000 wheels are produced a week, equating to 150 tonnes of cheese a year. And as well as producing Baron Bigod and Truffled Baron Bigod at Fen Farm, there have also been additions to the product range with Bungay Butter, as well as Skyr Yoghurt, Cultured Cream, Buttermilk and Ghee. In addition to their own range of products, cheesemaker Julie Cheney is also based at Fen Farm and uses their milk to make St Jude and St Helena cheeses.
How to grow and let go
To cope with the demand, the workforce has also grown to over 40, and production is now carried out by a team of cheesemakers.
“Two years into the cheesemaking, we were working incredibly long hours; working in the business, rather than on the business,” says Jonny. “It was ingrained in me when we were starting out, that as we didn’t have any money, we needed to do everything.
“Then, through a family connection, we were introduced to brand entrepreneur and Suffolk organic farmer, William Kendall. He was behind the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, and he suggested we had a stall there. We then got into a conversation with him, and I told him we were struggling with scaling up, and he put us in touch with Stephen Unwin, a business coach, and he worked alongside us ever since, helping us to grow and develop the business.
“Throughout our journey, we have learnt that you should always try and say ‘yes’ to an opportunity, as you never know where something will lead.”
“The stall at the Aldeburgh festival was a good example, as it was bad timing for us, taking place in September when the farm was busy, but we went for it and that then led to our conversation with William, and our introduction to Stephen.”
However Dulcie is open about how they felt in those initial days, and their embarrassment in asking for advice. “One thing which I feel isn’t talked about enough – and certainly no one tells you – is that for most, when you’re starting and building a new business from scratch, you will feel inadequate every step of the way,” she says. “You feel scared to ask advice from people that you see as bigger and more successful, as why would they be bothered by tiny little you? You suffer from imposter syndrome, but actually the reality is that they are happy, and impressed, that you have asked them and they are more than willing to share how they have made a success of their business; after all they were where you are now when they first started out.”
Another thing the couple have always taken advantage of is a media opportunity.
“We had had a couple of bits of coverage around the Halloween Pumpkin Festival, and the raw milk production,” Jonny explains. “Then when we started producing Baron Bigod, I reached out to a contact I had made at Farming Today. They came out and did an episode with us on Radio 4 about an English farmer buying French cows to make cheese, which went on to inspire a story on The Archers.
“The publicity achieved has been incredibly important to the success of our business, and the brand. We have always done our own PR and we have learnt that, as well as keeping in touch with the contacts you make, you also need to be patient and play the long game; understanding what makes a good story, so that you know you will pique their interest when you call. And never turn anything down, make the most of any opportunities that come your way.”
But how do Jonny and Dulcie get on as a husband and wife team?
“We are slightly different in personality, but we complement each other,” says Dulcie. “We both like and get excited by the shiny diamond of a new business idea, although I like to shut myself away and pick through the nitty-gritty of a project. We understand each other and work as a team towards achieving our goals. And, as we have always done everything together, that makes us strong as a unit.
“These days, now we have the extra hands, I can step back and do the things I enjoy in the business, such as the creative and copywriting.
But what about Jonny?
“I still work 90 to 100 hours a week, I don’t think of it as a job, it’s my life and I love it!” He laughs. “However, one thing I have become aware of, and have accepted, are my weaknesses and my limitations. I am now more comfortable with delegating and letting others take over.”
So what does the future hold for Fen Farm?
“This year, we are geared up to make more cheese, and we want to grow our revenue from website sales and exporting. Our longer term plan is again to make more cheese, but from our own production facilities based overseas. We want to stay true to Fen Farm and its values, and to not take it down the mass-produced route. We already have stockists in Spain, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and most recently the US, and we know there is lots of potential to expand on this.
“Looking at what we have achieved on the farm and with our cheesemaking, we are very proud of building a great team of talented people who are creative and are driven to push the business forward.
“Personally, looking to the future, we want to travel more and have more time with the children. And now, we are beginning to see our dreams becoming a reality.