One of the UK’s oldest family-owned cheesemakers has issued a Brexit rallying cry hailing the ‘massive opportunities’ for British food producers.
Richard Clothier, 50, whose family has run Somerset-based Wyke Farms for over 150 years, said ministers and businesses needed to develop an ‘export mindset’ to capitalise on Brexit opportunities.
But the married father-of-five warned against the ‘hugely damaging’ impact of a No Deal Brexit, which would hit his company with £4million of tariffs – or nearly twice his annual profits.
Richard Clothier, whose family has run Somerset-based Wyke Farms for over 150 years, said ministers and businesses need to develop an ‘export mindset’
The negotiations for a future trading arrangement between Britain and the EU have gone down to the wire.
The business world is holding its breath, with City chief executives from across several industries pleading with both sides to come to an agreement.
The future of British farming has been at the heart of discussions about Brexit and the country’s ability to successfully sell produce after it leaves the EU.
Wyke Farms, which last year made £2.3million profit from £97million turnover, has been making cheese a stone’s throw from Cheddar Gorge for more than 150 years. Its secret recipe, kept in a safe on the farm, was originally written down by the family back in 1861.
It now employs 350 workers, buys milk from more than 300 local farms and claims to indirectly support 10,000 jobs in the region.
It takes its cheese seriously, even insuring its expert taster Diane Cox’s nose for £5m, and its product is sold in the UK in major supermarkets.
Clothier runs the business with his father, brother, cousins and wife. Ahead of the Brexit deadline, he said that his trips abroad to sell vintage cheddar show there is immense appetite for British produce.
‘We’ve seen world markets open up in ways that we could never imagine, and there are huge opportunities for British products, if as a country we can articulate what Britain has to offer,’ said the cheesemaker, who voted Remain.
‘We need an export mindset. Germany and Ireland are developing huge export markets outside the EU, and they don’t have trade deals.’
India, where the middle classes will swell to 200m people, the US, Brazil, South Africa and South Korea are countries where British companies like his can look to sell into, he said.
Wyke has even become a surprise hit in 16 countries in Africa. ‘That would have been unheard of ten years ago,’ he added.
In total the farm produces 18,000 tonnes of the cheese per year and ships it to more than 160 countries.
But amid the optimism, the cloud of No Deal, and potentially significant tariffs under World Trade Organisation rules, lies overhead.
Cheese will be one of the hardest-hit sectors as both French and British makers reel from the extra costs applied to their export businesses.
The British Retail Consortium, in its ‘A fair deal for consumers’ report, warned that 85pc of food imported from the EU would see tariffs under a no-deal scenario, with cheddar cheese facing tariffs of 57 per cent.
For Wyke Farms, such an enormous increase in costs would hit profits immediately. It exports 30 per cent of its cheese to France, where there is greater demand for premium cheeses with a stronger flavour than in the UK.
The introduction of tariffs would smash margins, forcing the company to pass on some of the extra cost to its customers. Some buyers, for example shops selling in France, may decide to switch to higher margin products from the EU.
Clothier said: ‘It’s going to be potentially hugely damaging. We’ve calculated the tariffs with accountants PwC, and we’d be paying over £4million. For a business our size that would wipe out profits completely unless we pass it on.
‘We see it in the US, it’s like you’re carrying a heavy weight all the time.
‘It gives you less budget for tastings, support and advertising.’ But the higher cost of cheeses from the EU could spark new interest in the UK’s 700 regional varieties, which is 100 more than shoppers can find in France.
The outcome of Brexit is, however, unlikely to dampen the family’s spirit for sustainable farming, which has won them international awards.
The farm has its own biogas plant, using food waste from apples and bread to produce energy and clean gas, which is pumps back into the grid, powering homes in the local town of Bruton, Somerset.
Solar panels adorn the farm buildings and an ultra-filtration membrane allows it to reuse 90 per cent of the water that goes through the dairy.
For Clothier, this is part of a drive for British farming to be more sustainable, and also more self-sufficient.
He said: ‘There is a genuine risk that as the global population rises from 7bn to 9bn in the next 20 years, with the risk of climate change, it produces a genuine risk of food shortages. The UK needs to end up more self-sufficient in food.’
With doomsayers predicting empty shelves in January such comments feel more immediate than ever.
‘I’ve never known such uncertainty,’ Clothier said, adding that businesses had been forced to move faster than ever.
‘We’re going to have to be better post-Brexit, we can’t keep blaming the EU.
‘Whether we succeed or not will be down to us, there’s nowhere to hide any more.’
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