Wyke Farms is redefining the dairy business and has become the first national cheddar brand to be 100% self-sufficient in solar and biogas energy.
A new biogas plant nestling in fields in the Mendips is part of a £10m investment programme that has attracted international interest in this Somerset family business and brought it multiple awards.
Wyke Farms’ “100% Green” slogan is more than branding – it’s a long-term plan, carefully introduced over several years, with further innovation to come. The company has seen off the country’s largest brands for this coveted green credential by converting farm and dairy waste and harvesting solar energy – allowing it to rip up soaring monthly energy bills.
There are no half measures for Wyke Farms. In fact, it’s not only the first national cheddar maker to be self-sufficient in energy, it’s one of the first UK grocery brands and it’s saving over 22m kilos of CO2 a year.
The company sells internationally from rolling countryside around the Anglo-Saxon town of Bruton, where the family’s been making cheese since the 19th century.
Wyke Farms occupies nearly 700 hectares and produces the third largest cheddar brand in the UK from its own 1,000-strong dairy herd and milk bought from 150 other suppliers in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire. It produces Wyke Farms branded butter and cheese, evaporates milk for Yeo Valley yoghurts and wraps Yeo Valley butter.
It is the largest independent cheese maker and milk processor in the UK, turning out over 14,000 tonnes of cheddar, and it exports to more than 160 countries. The Clothier family began making Somerset cheddar in 1861 and Wyke Farms still uses Ivy Clothier’s traditional recipe.
But in recent years it has witnessed the damage climate change has brought to its county and seen its fuel bills rocket. No better spur, then, for change of its own.
The biogas plant took five years to plan and build. It converts 75,000 tonnes of farm and diary waste each year – most of it cow manure and leftover whey – into energy to run the dairy. Biomethane gas is also exported to the grid, helping offset third-party suppliers’ energy usage. Some also heats nearby Bruton. The plant saved £2m in energy costs and over 5m kilos of CO2 in the last year.
It has three 4,600m3 anaerobic digesters and the organic fertiliser they produce saves local farmers more than £100k in artificial nitrogen. It also takes in waste from local food and drink businesses.
What’s more, the organic fertiliser it produces doesn’t smell, so the overpowering stench of slurry as it’s scattered over the fields becomes a distant memory.
The farm has two buildings fitted with solar panels. A new barn was specially designed to catch the most solar energy and together the buildings carry 380 solar panels, producing about 80,000 kWh of electricity a year and saving over 42 tonnes of CO2. They power cheese production in the dairy and 50% is sold to the grid. Heat generated by chiller units is recovered and used to warm water.
The investment programme included a £1.3m water recovery plant too – enabling Wyke Farms to recover up to 90% of its factory water. The company uses electric cars and the whole production process is geared to minimising waste.
New wrap-around carton machines and the fine-tuning of production processes have cut packaging waste by 70%. Product waste has also been minimised by a £1m investment in new cutting equipment.
Wyke Farms is doing all it can to raise awareness locally and nationally, inviting farmers, schools and retailers to its new visitor centre. Its charismatic chairman, John Clothier, a keen country and western singer, has also promoted the company in his own way by performing in local supermarkets.
It’s active on social media, promoting its Friesian herd in 2012 with footage of happy cows dancing to a soundtrack of Carnival of the Animals. The most recent advert, Ode to the Cow, was directed by documentary maker Toby Dye of Ridley Scott Associates. Last year the company succeeded in trade marking its Free Cheese Fridays campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
Once there were more than 3,000 farmhouse cheese-makers in the West Country. Now, Wyke Farms is one of fewer than 10 remaining, but its determination to do things differently is flagging up the benefits of independence in a cheddar category dominated by multi-nationals and public limited companies.
The company has a target to be one of the most sustainable grocery suppliers in the sector, paying local farmers a sustainable price for their milk. A third phase of its investment project is already underway: it will generate more upgraded biogas to fuel HGV vehicles, including milk tankers, and increase solar energy tenfold by using other roofs and recovering heat from the rear of solar panels. It was this commitment that impressed the Guardian judges, who felt Wyke Farms stood out for its integrated sustainability plan.
Wyke Farms is the 2015 winner of the Guardian Sustainable Business Award in carbon and energy management.