Fivemiletown Creamery managing director Mervyn McCaughey explains the company’s plans to continue to milk profits from a job well done.
What does the operation at Fivemiletown Creamery entail?
The creamery processes fresh milk from its own network of 60 dairy farmers, milk bought at auction and supplies from Great Britain into a range of speciality cheeses and cheddar. We also produce cheese for other companies including the Cheese Strings product for Kerry Group and provide whey, a milk by-product to manufacturers of ingredients in the Republic. We market our Fivemiletown branded speciality and cheddar cheeses worldwide.
What is your market? Has it expanded?
Today we sell 95% of our cheese outside Northern Ireland to markets such as GB, the Republic, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States and Hong Kong. In 2004, we had one major customer, Kerry Group, based in the Republic. Today, we export to the markets mentioned above and now include major UK multiples including Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, as well as 1,800 cheese shops and delis across GB. Our speciality cheese is also included in Sainsbury’s prestigious Taste the Difference range. We supply our brie cheese to stores across France including Galeries Lafayette in major cities including Paris. We also supply Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, as well as Harrods.
How many farmers make up the co-operative and as a business how does it operate?
We are a co-operative with around 60 farmers in Fivemiletown and the Clogher Valley, who provide around a third of the 85 million litres of milk we purchase annually. We work closely with our farmers to ensure the consistently high quality milk we need for our products. To achieve this, our farm liaison manager, Maimie Neill, works with them in terms of animal diet and health and husbandry techniques. In return, we endeavour to ensure that our farmers receive the highest price possible for their milk.
Fivemiletown Creamery has been operating for more than 100 years, how have consumer trends changed, particularly in the past decade?
The main trend has been greater interest in different flavours and styles of cheese. Where once consumers bought standard cheeses such as cheddar, there’s now a greater willingness to experience something different. Holidaying abroad has introduced consumers to brie and other varieties of soft cheese. This search for something different has led to greater interest, for instance, in marinated products such as our Boilie with garlic, herbs and peppercorns and O’Reilly’s goat’s cheese with mustard and chives.
What has been your biggest success?
We’ve enjoyed great success particularly in international awards such as the World Cheese Awards and the Great Taste Awards held annually by the UK Guild of Fine Food. Our achievements in sales include being chosen by Sainsbury’s to provide a brie for its Taste the Difference range, being listed by Asda and Galeries Lafayette and, of course, by Wal-Mart in the US. Last year we were awarded ‘Supplier of the Year’ by Sainsbury’s, an award we are really proud of.
Have you any plans in the pipeline?
We continue to focus on measures that will ensure consistently high quality products. For example, we recently became the first food company in Northern Ireland to achieve the exacting Red Tractor quality accreditation. This is fast becoming an essential requirement for supplying multiple retailers across the UK. What Red Tractor means is that every element in the production chain, from dairy farm through transportation to processing is quality assured |by an independent judging panel. Our products now carry the Red Tractor quality mark.
Has the economic downturn impacted on the sector?
It has affected all sectors. In food, many consumers have tended to trade down to save money. Our speciality cheeses have not been seriously affected because they are pitched at premium price points for consumers seeking a little luxury. Dairy businesses have also had to cope with volatility in milk prices which has forced us to maintain downward pressure on costs.
What is the biggest challenge facing the sector?
Volatility in milk price is going to worry farmers when it comes to investment for the future. With the average age of dairy farmers 55 plus, we need to demonstrate to the younger farmer that there is a viable future in the industry. Also farmers are facing the challenge of having their farms ripped apart with new roads destroying their livelihood. Issues like this affect the viability of our business. Also, attracting staff into the industry is vital.