When it was time for Simon and Tim Jones – who are as different as chalk and cheese (pardon the pun!) – to start earning a living, no-one expected they would actually work together.
Simon, a country boy with a passion for livestock, was eager to join his father Richard on the family-farm near Alford, but Tim was attracted by the bright lights of London and the exciting prospect of a corporate lifestyle.
But, fast-forward to 1997 when a spontaneous turn of events brought them back together and set them on course to turn Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese into a hot favourite with cheese-lovers at home and abroad.
Today’s top chef Jamie Oliver serves it in his London restaurant, Union Jacks. It is also stocked by 100 farm shops across the country and selected supermarkets. But that’s not all – this Select Lincolnshire members’ product is also exported.
Simon and Tim also make a small amount of butter, which is loved by discerning customers, including Nottingham restaurateur Sat Bains and Richard Corrigan of Corrigan’s in London.
Unsurprisingly, production of Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese, which is made at F W Read & Sons Ltd farm at Ulceby Grange has hit capacity, so what now?
Tim said: “We want to keep Poacher special. We will carry on striving to make brilliant cheese. It’s all about producing the best you can – it’s a goal that you never reach.”
Tim and Simon are fourth generation family members working the 780-acre tenanted mixed farm, which is home to a 230-strong herd of Holstein Friesian cows, who produce 6,000 litres of milk a day for its seven-days a week cheesemaking operation.
Half of the land is used for grazing and the Jones grow their own silage, feed beans and feed beet, as well as maize and wheat, some of which is sold. Ninety-five per cent of their milk goes into cheese-making, but some is sold raw at farmers’ markets.
“We employ about 20 people. Many have worked here since leaving school. They include George Ashley, who joined the farm 46 years ago. Originally a tractor driver, he now does anything from feeding the cattle to milking and turning cheeses,” said Tim.
After his studies, Simon went travelling for a couple of years before joining his father. Earlier Richard Jones had spoken to a West Country farming about going into cheese making, but had never got around to doing it.
“It seemed like a good opportunity so, in 1992, Simon went on a cheese making course, bought some second-hand equipment, and started using 1,000 litres of milk to produce 100 kilos of cheese a week,” said Tim.
Those early batches were hugely popular and Simon and Richard were ultimately approached by a Market Rasen wholesale business, which had been dealing in eggs.
“The Edwina Currie egg-scare saw the market collapse, so they turned their attention to marketing cheese. It was a serendipitous moment for us.”
Simon continued cheese-making for the next 18 months, but rising led the business to take on Richard Tagg (head cheesemaker) and production was increased to four days a week – for 30 weeks of the year.
“In 1995, with the aim of becoming more commercial, a barn was converted into a dairy and fitted with a five-litre VAT, allowing cheese making to be increased five-fold,” said Tim.
“Another serendipitous moment came along in 1996 when we were announced Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards, after Poacher beat off 400 other cheeses to take the overall prize.”
That supercharged the business and confirmed the brothers were right to plough their energies into making cheese.
“You know you love your own cheese, but when people compliment you on it, it makes you really proud,” said Tim.
And it wasn’t long before he found himself swapping his London lifestyle for the slower pace of rural Lincolnshire.
“Simon has always very much been the farming brother. I wasn’t that way inclined. I went to Exeter University, got an economics degree, went to London and did market analysis for a drinks company.
“I didn’t actively want to return to Lincolnshire. Farming didn’t float my boat. But when I was 27 years old, Dad phoned me at just the right time,” said Tim.
“He said, we have got to market the cheese and you have the marketing and sales expertise. So, in 1998, I went to work at Park View Farm, helping the wholesaler who was helping us. Again, it was serendipitous moment.
“I stayed for two-and-a-half years, then moved our marketing operation back in-house.
“Simon and I are different characters and there is a clear defining line between what we do. Our differences really work to our advantage. If we had been buying tractors together, it might have been otherwise,” said Tim.
Success at the British Cheese Awards opened the door to new markets. Tim and Simon were quickly approached by Tesco, then Sainsbury. Today Waitrose is their largest supermarket customer. Their cheese is also sold by Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols.
“Farmers’ markets took off for us in 2000. They are a really important part of the business, not volumes-wise, but because they give us great publicity. People taste our cheese and spread the word,” said Tim.
“We have been exporting over four years. Neal’s Yard Dairy, a London-based British and Irish wholesaler, initially supported us in getting our cheese sold to Europe and America.
“I also travel to our overseas markets, because customers are really keen to meet the people who make the cheese, particularly the Americans who really love British produce,” said Tim.
The farming enterprise also makes cheese wedding and celebration cakes, creating about sixty of the triple-decked “conversation stoppers” every year.
Unless you get your timing right, it can be hard to catch Simon, who obviously spends more time in the field, than at a desk.
“I was always a farmer, whereas Tim never was, despite being from farming blood. He is not interested in the farm, but he is very good at what he does,” said Simon.
“Our partnership works very well. Somebody upstairs obviously did a very good job. I sometimes ask his advice and we look at things together when it comes to making important decisions.
“It is always nice to have someone to bounce ideas off. Tim has a very good pair of eyes to run things by,” said Simon.
Many people may think there is just one version of Poacher cheese, but Simon – who uses the warm morning milk, combined with the cool milk of the previous afternoon –said cheese making is not that simple.
“The milk can vary according to the seasons. Our regular cheese is usually matured for up to fourteen months. A sharper variety is sold after being kept for about fifteen months. Vintage Poacher, matured for eighteen months, has more depth and complexity,” said Simon.
“Every now and again we get a “wildcard” where the milk is suitable to be used for our Double Barrel variety, which is matured for two years. A small amount of cheese is also smoked over oak chips, in Yorkshire.
Every six weeks, the Poacher team makes Lincolnshire Red – first developed five years ago for the farmers’ markets. Its delicate flavour appeals to younger palates.
As the farm has developed Tim and Simon have invested in renewable technologies, including a wind turbine, solar panels in the cheese store, a woodchip burner for heating milk and a groundsource heat pump to heat the office and packing room.
Tim is married to Gina and they have four children (aged nine to 15). Simon and his wife Jeannette, who live on site, have three (aged between 11 and 14).
This feature interview was first published in issue 28 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.