Some businesses start with a dream, others with a plan. For cheesemakers Nick and Wendy Holtham it was a combination of both.
For many years, the couple had been making ewe’s milk cheese for their own consumption and were aware of a commercial demand for this niche dairy product.
But it wasn’t until Wendy visited a cheese-making business with a Farming Connect women’s discussion group that the seed was sown for her own future as an artisan cheesemaker. Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes, is funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
Five year later, when Nick retired from his office job at a haulage company, the time seemed right to take that bold next step into commercial production.
“It took retiring and the safety of a salary being removed to take that plunge. We thought what better way to blow the rest of our pension than starting a business!’’ laughs Nick.
“If it hadn’t been for Farming Connect we would never have started the business, it was that Farming Connect visit to Caws Cenarth that was the catalyst.’’
That was in 2013. Caws Cenarth was keen to produce a sheep’s milk cheese so agreed to buy the milk. The Holthams established their flock on 23 acres of land they bought at Crymych and invested £12,500 in a six-point parlour.
They now milk around 120 mostly Friesland ewes and, in addition to the land they own at Dolwerdd, they rent a further 30 acres of land.
For nearly four years, they were solely milk producers but that changed when they attended a Farming Connect marketing surgery at Aberaeron last January.
At this, they had a one-hour, one-to-one meeting with business consultant, Jeremy Bowen Rees of Landsker Business Solutions. “We had thought that we would have a go at making our own cheese to sell, so we were really grateful for his sound marketing advice combined with an injection of enthusiasm. He pointed us in the right direction,’’ says Wendy.
“The guidance received was instrumental in helping us to take our business a step further and also ensured we retain control over production and the future direction of the business.’’
Jeremy recalls it was clear Nick and Wendy were passionate about pursuing their new venture.
“Through thorough research and trial and error, they were both already pretty well informed about what they were going to do and focused on what they wanted to achieve.”
The couple enrolled in courses in cheese making and food hygiene at Food Centre Wales, Horeb where they developed recipes for their own range of Defaid Dolwerdd cheeses, including Aur Preseli, a hard cheese, and a halloumi called Halwmi.
They now process 20% of their milk themselves, making the cheeses twice a month at Food Centre Wales. The cheeses are sold at numerous farm shops and farmers’ markets, including St Dogmaels and Aberystwyth. Supported by Cywain, the Holthams’ products also attracted significant buyer interest at this year’s Royal Welsh Show and they also attended last month’s Llandovery Sheep Festival.
Caws Cenarth continues to make soft cheeses from their milk, including the best-selling creamy blue, Dol-Las.
Each ewe produces on average a litre of milk daily; it takes five litres of this to produce 1kg of cheese, half the volume needed for cheese made from cow’s milk. This is because of the milk’s high butterfat and protein content – Nick and Wendy’s flock produce milk at an average of 5.31% protein and 6% butterfat.
The flock lambs three times a year, in January, April and June, to provide a consistent supply of milk, although the flock is dry in December and January.
The Friesland ewes are crossed to a Romney to produce a lamb with good conformation to sell as stores at Crymych market, and to produce wool for the hand spun yards and woollen products, including socks, gloves and hats, which Wendy produces. Last year she won the prize for the champion fleece at the Pembrokeshire County Show.
Cheese-making is just the start of Nick and Wendy’s journey with their ewes’ milk. They are planning to produce fudge and yogurt, even soap.
Their foray into yogurt-making has already been met with approval. “I had nothing to do on the Sunday afternoon before we went to the Royal Welsh Show this year so I made some natural yogurt,’’ says Nick.
“We entered it into a competition at the show, in an unbranded, plain pot. We were up against the big boys and were thrilled to get a bronze.’’
Farming Connect are hosting two Diversification Seminars in February. To attend, or for more information, please click here or contact Farming Connect on 08456 000 813.
21/02/2018 – Fforest Inn, Presteigne
22/02/2018 – The Hand Hotel, Llangollen