Exports to 40 countries have smoothed out seasonal demand spikes for the maker which now turns over £30 million a year and is owned by third generation Somerset farmers the Alvis family, headed by Peter, its managing director, and brother Johnny. While maintaining their traditional livestock and crops set up, it was the need to diversify and then take advantage of its famous location amid lush pastures close to the village of Cheddar, that took Lye Cross into making both organic and conventional cheeses on site. Now the business, employing 140 people, uses 45 million litres of prime quality milk from the Alvis’ own cows and from 25 other small suppliers.
After production, which includes the hand-turning of curds so they bind, and storage of up to two years, annual cheese output is close to 4,500 tonnes in a variety of formats.
“We’re a boutique cheesemaker able to offer flexibility to customers in niche markets,” explains Peter. “Our chief aims are to farm sustainably and provide stable pricing for our suppliers.”
As well as selling to well-known UK retailers such as Waitrose and Abel & Cole, Lye Cross started exporting over a decade ago to both established markets and lesser known ones like Poland and downright tricky places such as Greece, where it stood firm with its customers supplying the tourist industry during the country’s economic crisis so they could trade through the storm and into more prosperous times now.
For Lye Cross the Cheddar association is priceless, turning customers into visitors from all over the world.
“Our West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is matured for nine months and carries a Protected Designation of Origin from the EU. It’s the heart of our business, establishing our authenticity,” says Peter. “It will continue despite the other Brexit uncertainties that we are finding very challenging. Certainty is what we need.”
Unlike soft cheeses Cheddar has a longer life and transports well. That persuaded Lye Cross to focus on exports which now account for around 35 per cent of sales.
Key to that happening has been because of the export credit cover available through the Government-backed UK Export Finance (UKEF) scheme.
This kicked in to fill the gap left by nervous, long term private insurers withdrawing from the market and now ensures businesses get paid for a contract even if their buyer defaults.
“Having UKEF cover saved our revenue stream and enabled us to expand in places perceived as more risky. It’s an invaluable safety net, no more expensive than other policies and easy to set up,” says Peter for whom the US and Canada have become big growth areas with a strong customer interest in cheese made with milk produced by grass-fed cows.
That has now led to the company launching a new cheese there and plans to introduce it in the UK.
“People want to know where their food comes from and how animals are cared for. It’s the story of our times.”
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