The Big Interview: Staying strong
Resilience runs deep in Lancashire cheesemakers like Gill Hall. It’s made them as strong and as distinct as the products they create in the shadow of Beacon Fell.
And it’s that resilience that gives Gill confidence that they can and will overcome the challenges and threats posed by the coronavirus crisis.
“We’ve survived the war and foot and mouth, we’ve survived different difficult situations and times, and we will survive this,” she declares.
Gill makes her rallying call as she and her team are working hard to meet this latest challenge facing the family business. She says: “It has been a little bit overwhelming. We are very much reacting to things as they happen.”
However, the award-winning Butlers Farmhouse Cheese business that she heads is also getting onto the front foot. Gill explains: “We are looking at new sales channels so we can react to the new situation.”
Just days later the business announces that it has brought together small artisan food and drink producers from across the North West to create ‘The Butlers Larder’.
It’s an innovative service delivering fresh produce to doorsteps in Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside.
After a very local trial in Longridge, Goosnargh and Grimsargh, the Butlers team brought together more suppliers and built an online platform in quick time.
We've survived the war and foot and mouth, we've survived difficult situations and times, and we'll survive this.
The Butlers Larder service offers food and drink, from cheese, milk, yoghurt and eggs to fresh bread, fruit and vegetables, tea and coffee, from “the very best artisan producers in the North West”.
The aim is to give people a chance to taste the best that the region has to offer while supporting small producer businesses at a time when they really need it.
This year’s winner of the family business category in Lancashire Business View’s Red Rose Awards - the judges declared “the sense of ‘family’ runs right through this business’ - Butlers can trace its history back to 1932.
Gill’s grandparents Richard and Annie Butler used milk from their own herd of cows to make cheese by hand in the kitchen of their Inglewhite farm - cheese was even matured in the family bedrooms.
Gill’s mum Jean Butler created its flagship farmhouse Lancashire recipe. Now aged 81 she still puts in an appearance at the dairy.
She and her husband Tom took over the Inglewhite operation in 1969. With five children to bring up, they decided to increase production at a time when most cheese was sold through an organisation governed by the former Milk Marketing Board, which licensed all production. Its restrictions made life difficult for traditional cheesemakers.
Butlers Farmhouse Tasty Lancashire - matured for at least 10 months - was created and remains its flagship product.
Gill, 60, began making cheese when she was just nine years of age, helping mum at weekends and during school holidays. Today her two sons Matthew and Daniel are in charge of day-to-day operations. Her daughter Imogen is also involved in the business.
The family links don’t end there. More than half the milk used in its cheesemaking comes from the family’s own farm, run by Gill’s brother Andrew. It sits across the road from the dairy. All its goats’ milk is supplied from her niece Nicola, who has 1,000 of the animals nearby.
Butlers also buys milk from another six farms in a ten-mile radius. Two are run by cousins and nieces and the others from non-relations who Gill calls “part of our farming family”.
Today Butlers employs 100 people at its Inglewhite dairy and an operation in Longridge. With a £14m annual turnover the business, which produces almost 1,000 tonnes of cheese a year, supplies all the main UK food retailers. Marks and Spencer is its biggest customer and a “strategic partner”.
The Butler family has played a significant role in the local community, from installing broadband cabling to supporting local schools and universities. Gill is an ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ at Lancaster University Management School and sees herself doing more of that in the future.
However, she agrees that cheesemaking is “her passion”. And she has an unrivalled knowledge of Lancashire’s cheesemaking history, from the days when every single farm in the area was involved, through to the Second World War and its production restrictions and the large industrial creameries that followed in the 1950s and beyond.
Both had a negative impact on Lancashire’s traditional cheesemakers and the fightback has been a long process. She says: “It wasn’t until the 1960s that people really started to use the traditional recipes again.”
Gill remains on a mission to spread the word about Lancashire cheeses far and wide and to highlight their difference to the white crumbly, mass-produced product that most people associate with the county. She points out that the ‘crumbly Lancashire’ found on supermarket shelves was only created in the post-war years.
As well as its Tasty and Creamy Lancashire varieties, Butlers’ products include the distinctive Kidderton Ash goats’ cheese. The dairy has a host of top industry awards to its name as the mission continues. Gill says: “It is all about introducing people from outside Lancashire to what we do.”
She explains that its famous Blackstick’s Blue cheese, now a firm favourite in UK households, has opened doors nationally for the business.
More new products are on the way, including an extra-aged traditional Lancashire that’s set to find its way on the shelves at Booths supermarkets shortly.
Gill says: “Lancashire’s cheesemakers have gone from strength to strength. What we produce is interesting, it is different. We’ve had to be more creative in order to grow our own markets.
“We’re all within five miles of Beacon Fell and we are all friends and tremendously passionate about traditionally made Lancashire.
“Our plan isn’t just to grow, grow, grow; our plan is to innovate, innovate, innovate; and to keep providing for the people who are reliant on us.
“We want to make speciality farmhouse cheese accessible to more people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet. Lancashire cheese has a long way to go.”
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