Sustainable self-sufficiency for Cornish cheesemakers
From his cheese production unit on the family farm, Giel Spierings can see the grass growing to feed the cows producing the milk he turns into Cornish Gouda; zero food miles at its finest.
When the Spierings’ dairy farm was in danger of being sold, youngest son Giel saw diversification as a potential saviour, founding the Cornish Gouda Company.
Ten years later, his parents Joost and Annemarie continue to run their pedigree housed herd to produce high-quality milk for cheesemaking, Giel is the cheesemaker, and his brother Jan manages the land.
Growing a cheese company out of the ashes of a non-viable dairy business, money was tight but brought environmental benefits.
“From day one, heat production has been renewable, thanks to a biomass boiler acquired in exchange for two tractor tyres,” said Giel. “And our first cheese vat was made from an old one brought over from the Netherlands by my parents.”
Both boiler and vat are bigger and better these days, renewable heat incentives helping to fund a larger biomass boiler and solar panels, enabling the business to produce most of its own power.
Nature is also playing a role in the company’s cheese storage facilities. “We dug into the hillside, so the insulated store benefits from being cooled naturally, with only two small cooling units needed to keep the cheese at the required temperature for maturation,” explained Giel.
Fortunately for the environmentally minded cheesemaker, Gouda comes with a natural rind avoiding the need for plastic packaging. “During the pandemic, we were forced to sell pre-packed cheese slices, but this only remains around 5% of our sales, meaning almost all is distributed without the need for artificial wrapping,” said Giel.
But building a sustainable business with good environmental credentials isn’t limited to how the cheese is produced, it begins outside on the land.
Giel’s brother Jan, a qualified agronomist, is looking at the Sustainable Farming Incentive support for increasing their grassland diversity with herbal leys. He is already in a Countryside Stewardship scheme and using crimson clover successfully, benefiting from its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil.
“We started using clover when fertiliser prices were rising and have managed to reduce our applied nitrogen by about two thirds,” said Jan. “We’re planting the clover after maize and take one cut before the maize goes back in again.”
Zero grazing is another positive change Jan has implemented. “There’s less wastage, labour and machinery than in producing silage,” Jan explained. “The grass yield is good and protein levels higher, so we’ve also reduced our need for bought-in concentrates.”
With the whole family involved in Cornish Gouda, the Spierings have their eyes set firmly on the future, strong in the knowledge this is only possible by being good custodians of the land.
Finalist, Best Sustainable Farming Initiative category, Cornwall Farming Business Awards 2023.