Shepherd's Purse and Yorvale celebrate twenty five years in business

Judy Bell launching Yorkshire Blue

Cheese makers Katie, Judy and Caroline Bell

Lesley Buxton views the pasteurising process at Yorvale

Ian and Lesley Buxton of Yorvale

First published in Business news
Last updated

THIS year marks the 25th anniversary of two rural businesses born out of dairy farming in North Yorkshire. Business editor Laura Knowlson visits Shepherd's Purse and Yorvale to see what lies behind successful farm diversification.

For one it was a need to generate more income to support a growing family while for the other it was an exploration into new territory to tackle food intolerances. In both cases, a quarter of a century ago this year, two North Yorkshire farming families stepped away from what had been done on their land for generations before them.

Now the Bell's farm near Thirsk is home to Shepherd's Purse cheese, while the Buxton's farm at Acaster Malbis has been transformed into ice cream producer Yorvale.

Both award winning businesses, the producers have grown organically in North Yorkshire, survived devastating times in the farming industry, secured supermarket sales, and are now testing the water in exporting.

Shepherd's Purse was the brainchild of farmer's wife Judy Bell, who after having four children went to work as a receptionist for an osteopath in Northallerton.

During that time she found she was dealing with a lot of people coming in who were intolerant to cows milk.

After a bit of research Mrs Bell found sheeps milk was a great alternative and wondered about the potential of milking sheep on the farm.

Mrs Bell's daughter Caroline, who now runs the business with her sister Katie said: "At that time farmers were being encouraged to diversify.

"Mum came back and spoke to my dad and grandad. It was seen initially as a strange idea at the time, but she bought about 40 ewe lambs, we built a diary and got four experienced milking sheep to show the others how to do it."

Mrs Bell then met Les Lambert, from Fountains Dairy, which is now part of Wensleydale Cheese, who introduced her to cheese making, and before long her sheeps milk had been transformed into two new cheeses; Olde York and Yorkshire Feta.

Shepherd's Purse was officially launched at the Great Yorkshire Show in July 1989.

At the end of July that year Mr Lambert took Mrs Bell's cheese to the Nantwich International Cheese Show. While she was busy at the farm making cheese, he rang her with good news. Olde York had won gold in the Sheep's milk class.

Carolinen said: "She was delighted. Her first cheese entered into a competition and she won gold in an international award.

"We continued to make sheep's milk cheese and grew selling to independent delis all over Yorkshire. The cheese was well received from the start and soon the range grew as we started making different flavours."

Subsequent years saw Shepherd's Purse go on to win another award at Nantwich, this time in front of buyers Tesco. The supermarket giant visited the North Yorkshire farm in November and took a product for one of its Christmas lines that year, starting a relationship that continues to this day.

Caroline said: "That was the beginning of us working with supermarkets. In 1997 we won reserve supreme champion then Sainsbury's came to us.

"The supermarkets very much came to us off the back of winning awards. Over the years we have built on all those relationships and supply all the supermarkets other than Asda."

As the business was getting bigger Shepherd's Purse was faced with the challenge of a gap in the year when sheep don't produce milk, so it moved into cows milk and in 1994 created Yorkshire Blue. It was the first blue cheese made in Yorkshire in 30 years. That was now 20 years ago.

In 1999, after the supermarket order, Shepherd's Purse had expanded hugely so in 2000 the Bell's started putting up their new facility at the farm, which was completed in 2001.

However that coincided with Foot and Mouth disease.

Caroline recalled: "We lost a huge part of our milking supply. One of our supplier's flocks, as we had outsourced milking at that point, had to be culled.

"It was a hard time for the business, but more for the farming community , it was our friends that were hit too and it was a very difficult time across the board."

Another major challenge for the business was its ten year battle over it the naming of its Yorkshire Feta with Brussels.

As the UK's only producer of feta cheese, Shepherd's Purse Cheeses was hit by European Union ruling allowing only Greece to label its cheese feta under "Protected Designation of Origin" status.

Caroline said: "It was always called Yorkshire Feta, we weren't trying to pass it off as something else.

"We lost our case though and has to renamed it Yorkshire Fettle.

"It was a marketing disaster. It's still not always clear to new people exactly what it is. People still remember the cheese though and are supportive of it. We are trying to make it clearer what type of cheese it is."

The business turned another corner in 2012 when sisters Caroline and Katie stepped up to lead the firm, as Judy took a step back. Katie was already with Shepherd's Purse having returned for three month after university 17 years ago and never leaving, while Caroline returned to the family business in 2012 having worked with Apple for eight years.

Employing a team of 20, the business welcomes fresh daily milk deliveries, with the cheese made in the morning before staff turn their hand to

packing and waxing and wrapping and spiking right through to maturity, the time of which depends on the cheese and ranges from two to three weeks to 16 weeks.

The business now supplies supermakets, independent shops, as well as chefs and restaurants, and also supplied its Olde York to Concord. This summer it has rebranded its Yorkshire Blue as Le Yorkshire Bleu to celebrate the arrival of the Tour de France in the county.

Caroline said: "We would look to continue to grow the business but staying true to our values which is a big thing for us.

"We also look to continue our great relationship with our staff and our customers. The whole company is like a big family.

"For us we would like to export, but its about getting the right conditions for packing and distribution to ensure the quality of the product. We have done some in small quantities but need to look into it more before we roll out on a bigger scale.

"I think what's really good is food culture has really evolved in Britain. When we launched people did think it was strange using sheeps milk. But over the last 25 food culture has really gone through a revolution.

"People care about what they eat, where it's from and invest more in better food. That puts producers like us in a better position. We have always been committed to quality and there seems to be a real appetite for that now."

Unlike the Bells who had come from a farming family, Ian and Lesley Buxton were relatively new to the industry. Although both growing up in the countryside their parents had been in the building trade.

It was a Saturday job on a farm that saw Ian develop a love of farming, and go on to Askham Bryan college to learn a farming trade. He eventually became head of dairy at Leeds University's farm in Bramham, with 120 dairy cows.

Lesley recalled: "There was a lot of red tape in that job and he decided to farm for himself.

"There was an opportunity with the county council at that time where they had small farms available for what they called first time farmers.

"We decided the only way that we were going to farm for ourselves was to apply for a county council farm."

The couple landed an 80-acres far at Acaster Malbis, bought a herd of cows and started dairy farming.

Lesley said: "I was a manager for Mothercare at the time, then we decided to have a family.

"We were fairly restricted in terms of income because of the milk quotas. If we produced more than our quota we had to throw it away, but to buy a bigger quota cost more money than it would have been worth. The only other option was to buy a bigger farm and were weren't in a position to do that. So we looked at what we could do on the farm to generate more income.

"We looked at all the regulations and there was a loop hole that listed a number of things you could make with the extra milk on top of your quota, one of which was icecream."

The couple decided to give it a try and put up a small factory on the farm. They had booked in for a one day course on icecream making but their son made an early arrival so they had to make do with a one hour meeting with an ice cream expert and learning the rest from books.

Lesley said: "We booked our first show, the Home and Gardens show at Wetherby. We bought a little cart, dressed as milk maids, and we sold out on the day. We couldn't believe it.

"So we continued to make icecream and sell it on the mobile unit a shows. We made it in the week and would go out and sell it on a weekend. We did that for a lot of years."

The problem for Yorvale was in winter when the business had very little trade compared extremely busy summer month. Lesley and Ian had to look at how to grow the business outside of the summer shows, so approached the catering and food service trade, and again the response was staggering.

Meanwhile the farm was part of 13 farms that were being transferred from the county council to the city council. The city council outsourced the management operation, but after realising it wasn't economically worth while they offered the farms up for sale.

Lesley said: "That was about 1998 and we bought the farm off the council.

"Now we owned the land we decided that we would increase the farm to give us more capability to approach bigger businesses to sell ice cream outside of York.

"Our factory went from two rooms to 750 square metres, and we got BRC Food Safety accreditation, which really opened the doors for us.

"About five years ago we doubled the size of the production buildings again, and this year have put up a new cold store in a disused farm building.

"We have grown the business from a humble beginning to quite a substantial business. It has been very hard graft. Ian laid every piece of concrete, he put the building up with his dad. It has been hard but it has been rewarding."

Alongside hard work the couple have faced challenges in running Yorvale, a number of which were totally out of their control.

Lesley recalled: "Foot and mouth was a terrible time. Just getting vehicles on and off the farm was challenging.

"They were ring fencing areas for slaughtering. If they had to slaughter our herd we would have lost our business.

"We kept thinking how close are we now. I remember Ian ringing to say they'd got a farm this side of Leeds. It was a terrifying time. Thankfully we were OK, there were a lot of farms that weren't though.

"We've had other challenges along the way. A lot has been planning. When we started our long term ambition was a to have a farm shop and cafe here, but we've never been allowed it.

"We've had to go through planning appeals just to get to where we are now. A city based local authority doesn't always understand rural issues and that has been a challenge."

Ian and Lesley are still milking their own cows, but decided years back they were being paid so little for our milk so sold the majority of our herd and just kept 12 cows; their "12 deciples" for ice cream.

As the ice cream business has grown they have built that back up to 36 cows, and the herd will probably be up to 50 next summer.

The cows milk is taken straight from the farm to the factory; 90mintues after leaving the cow the milk is going into production.

Lesley said: "We are still very small producers but from where we came from to where we are now I still have to pinch myself sometimes."

Yorvale sells in Yorkshire to food service, hotels, restaurants, shops as well as selling regionally in Booths and Waitrose, and farm shops. Nationally it sells into a distribution network dotted up and down the country, as well as on cruise ships and theatres.

Lesley said: "The growth of quality ice cream over the last 20 years has been significant. Before it was a ring of the bell soft ice cream in a cone, now it's a dessert choice. It has made its way more into people's lives and I think that's because of the quality. It's something that's enjoyed rather than just something given to the kids.

"In September last year launched Yoryog, a frozen yoghurt range. I see that as a growth area in food services. People focus on cutting out fat in their diet and Yoryog has really hit the mark for that.

"I'm going on my first export course in two weeks. There may be an opportunity there may not be but you don't learn until you give it a go.

"We are proud to still be farming and running a rural business. There were eight farms around us when we came, We are the only ones still milking. I think that's sad for the industry.

"From being a none farming family we now own a farm and factory employing a team of 11 local staff. We are very proud of our staff, most have been with us a lot of years, and we've recently taken on three new people.

"The most successful thing we have ever done is making ice cream. With our acreage of 80 we wouldn't have been able to sustain a small family growing up. We saw the opportunity to add value to the farm and we did it."

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