Brexit and Cheddar

Photo courtesy of Barber’s Cheddar

What are the impacts of Brexit on the local businesses in the West Country? What changes have they had to make in this last month? Are their businesses better or worse off? In earlier articles, we have talked to companies involved in transport and natural beauty products. Now, we find out about one of the iconic products of the West Country – Cheddar cheese.

Mike Pullin has been involved in farming and cheese making in Dorset for 26 years. Following a merger in 2010 with AJ and RG Barber from Ditcheat near Shepton Mallett, he works as a director and shareholder, primarily looking after the export side of the business and strengthening the brands.

You may well be familiar with some of their products – Barber’s 1833 vintage reserve cheddar, Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar, Coastal Cheddar, Dorset Red, Oakwood, Dorset Crofter and Cave Aged Goats Cheese.

Barber’s Cheddar is one of very few Cheddar cheesemakers with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) accreditation. This ensures that the milk for its cheddar comes from cows in the West Country – Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. It means it’s made using traditional techniques, such as stacking and turning the curds by hand — the method called ‘cheddaring’. All of their PDO accredited cheese is matured for at least nine months, enabling it to develop the rich, full flavour of true cheddar, of which Mike and the Barber family are rightly proud. It is worth noting that PDO accreditation is an EU scheme. It will remain valid until 2024 in the UK and there are ongoing discussions on its future. As with a lot of things regarding Brexit, what happens next is far from clear.

Exports account for 15-20 per cent of the business. Although most exports are sent to the USA (Coastal Cheddar being a firm favourite with Americans, with its sweet notes embedded with white crystals of calcium lactate), Barber’s also sells to the EU, primarily to France, Spain and Germany.

Photo courtesy of Barber’s Cheddar

Brexit and the UK/EU Trade deal has had a real impact on the business in many ways but Mike is confident about Barber’s prospects and feels that, despite Brexit, the company will thrive.

“Yes there are hold-ups at the moment, especially around the understanding of the paperwork, but these are only the teething problems you might expect with such an upheaval of rules and regulations.”

Mike explained, however, the issues that Barber’s were experiencing as a direct result of the new trade deal:

  • “We now have to get each load that we export to the EU certified by a vet, this has added between £150 and £200 to each consignment;
  • there are real increases in transport costs as prices have been hiked by around a third in order to pay for the extra paperwork and hold-ups;
  • we have also had to change our packaging and labels to comply with new rules.”

I asked Mike whether he was worried that the delays might force his customers to shop elsewhere:

“That was a problem we foresaw so we built stock into our distribution warehouse in Europe in December. This ensured we had enough stock to see us through any transition period whichever way the deal had gone.”

I asked about other aspects of the business that may be affected:

“We employ around 350 staff across our farms and processing plants and many of them are EU nationals. Our staff are the lifeblood of the business with many of them highly skilled. So far a high number of them have applied for settled status and we are working with our HR department to encourage any who would like to stay working within the business.”

EEA or Swiss citizen, and their families, will have to make a successful application to the EU Settlement Scheme to continue living in the UK after 30 June 2021.

Image courtesy of Barber’s Cheddar

At this point I asked Mike why he was so positive about the future, considering all the issues that he has had to overcome:

“Well, back in 2016 I voted to remain in the EU; I felt we had more to offer inside than out. However I firmly believe in democracy, therefore we have to work to mitigate these initial problems. I believe British people have always been great at stepping up to the plate, so I think that this is a great opportunity to use their technological and innovation skills to produce more products and grow exciting new foods. For instance hydroponics and other modern farming methods.”

So are you not afraid of a lowering of standards in food production?

“Britain has learned many things while being part of the European Union, however, before we joined we had the highest standards of food production and animal husbandry and I see no reason why this would not continue. Naturally we must guard against substandard cheap imports, but I see no reason why we wouldn’t do this.”

Mike’s enthusiasm for British innovation is infectious. He feels, however, that it is far too early to fully judge the outcome of Brexit, our new trading status and the effect on the people and businesses of Britain. He feels that this will take at least five to ten years, but he has said that he will be happy to discuss how the ‘teething problems’ have been resolved (or not) in around six months’ time.

Mike Pullin serves as a Conservative councillor on Somerset County Council

West Country Voices is committed to bringing the stories of our local people and businesses and we know that many small businesses face permament issues as a consequence of the Trade and cooperation Agreement that will put them out of business or force them to set up a base in the EU. Please get in contact to have your story told.