The US is the second largest export market for British dairy products, behind only the European Union. According to HMRC data, almost a third of cheese exports to non-EU countries were delivered to the US in 2022. But in a country where traditions in cheese production run deep, standing out as an export brand can be a particular challenge.
For UK family cheesemaker Wykes Farms, being able to market a net-zero cheddar has been a significant advantage. In January 2022, the Somerset-based business secured rotation in Costco for Ivy’s Reserve, the world’s first carbon-neutral cheddar. Retail distribution has since expanded and now includes over 120 Shaw’s Supermarkets in five states, Safeway stores in three states, and Fresh Thyme Market stores nationwide. From April, the 18-month aged cheddar is landing in California and will be stocked at more than 200 Vons stores as well as in 120 Rayley’s supermarkets.
Positioned as a premium cheddar at RRP of $9.99-$10.99 for a 7oz pack, how has the brand’s carbon neutrality claims helped it stand out on shelves? “There has been fantastic retailer and consumer reaction to the brand design, carbon neutral certification status and the cheese quality,” Wyke Farms MD, Rich Clothier, told DairyReporter. “The brand is recognisable for its ‘Englishness’, it is distinctive and stands out clearly in a competitive area of imported cheeses.”
Ivy’s carbon-neutral status comes on the back of Wyke’s efforts to footprint its cheese in partnership with the Carbon Trust and Promar International, though the company’s sustainability strategy also involves generating its own gas and electricity, encouraging regenerative farming, and investing in sustainable feed.
But it’s also the brand’s heritage – dating back to the 19th century – and its Britishness that appeals to Americans. “Our cheeses are made just 10 miles from the village of Cheddar, the original home of cheddar cheese, and this provenance combined with sustainability resonates with our consumers who are generally looking for new and exciting premium food items for cheese board and pairing usage occasions,” he told us.
Wyke also offers a range of 7oz mature, extra-mature and vintage reserve cheeses branded Somerset Cheddars in the US. “This range is premium quality, and the brand clearly communicates provenance, sustainability and produced using 100% green energy, award-winning and family USPs,” he said. “We have invested in the brand identities in the US market to ensure that they are aligned and appeal to our US customers. This has taken time to get right but we are now set a brand proposition that is right for the market.
“We have ambitious plans to develop it over the next three years with a target of 3,000 tonnes. We have invested in tradeshows and adopting a partnership with the right importer.”
Wyke is also using the ‘Brit factor’ to appeal to consumers in Asia, as Clothier explained: “In 2018 we recognised an opportunity to capitalise on the British factor & developed ‘London 1856’ primarily to bolster sales in emerging export regions such as Asia with an unmistakably British standout pack.
“This brand also appeals to the London catering market. London 1856 has a slightly younger demographic of 20- to 45-year-olds and the brand is centred around lifestyle, flavour, experience, recipes, home cooking and Westernization, appealing to first generation to travel and visit London.”
Back in Europe, Clothier admitted that Brexit has ‘added cost, complexity and time’ to the process. “However, as cheese is non-perishable with long shelf-life, it is OK,” he added. “But on the fresh liquid exports, whey and skim conc demand has reduced significantly as it is a product of the UK and has to be kept separate in the EU market.”
Core markets, such as France where Wyke has been trading for 28 years, continue to see ‘strong demand’, we were told. Overall, the company exports 35% of its produce to foreign markets, or around 6,000 tonnes.
Nevertheless, inflationary pressures have forced the firm to thread carefully in the past year. In its annual report, published in late January 2023, Clothier said the company has faced rising fuel, wheat and fertilizer prices as well as a 50% rise in packaging costs. Wages too had gone by as much as a fifth across the business.
Investment in cheese stocks ‘remains a challenge’ going forward, although the company has secured a £30m general export facility to help finance its cheddar stock and grow exports. The firm currently has around 11,000 tones of cheddar maturing and plans to invest in more storage space.
Asked what the company is hoping to see from the markets this year, Clothier said: “We expect to see that as energy prices ease and some of the cost of the components will reduce, labour cost and availability will continue at the inflated level."
Wyke has also faced pressures to reduce its milk price. According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), all UK cheese processors tracked by the body's statisticians had issued price cuts for March, with Wyke reducing its milk price by 5.19 pence per liter (equivalent of $6.2 cents), its first price change since November 2022.
But Clothier has insisted that producers need 'a sustainable price'.
“Milk producers in the UK need a sustainable price, otherwise we will see them exiting the category, and farm investment in sustainability is required to meet the requirements of dairy consumers globally,”