A virtual farm visit: Stonebeck Wensleydale

During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to send our teams to visit farms as regularly as we would like to. In place of this we have been hosting virtual cheese tastings with cheesemakers, who talk to us about their cheese and field questions from our cheesemongers. It’s not quite the same as visiting a farm but it’s the next best thing in knowing who makes the cheeses on our counter and helps build an open relationship between maker, maturer and seller. It supports our teams in engaging with a cheese’s provenance and motivates them to get behind the people and systems behind it. Perhaps most importantly, it builds a sense of community which is one of the joys of working directly with small producers. One recent event was with Andrew and Sally Hattan, first-generation farmers who make Stonebeck Wensleydale in Upper Nidderdale, Yorkshire. Here, retail manager Miranda shares her notes from the evening. 

We learned why their cheese is made seasonally; how their farm’s remote location determined the direction the farm went in, the cows they have and the cheese they make; and how practical business decisions and romanticism converge.  

Speaking with the Hattans virtually was advantageous because it saved those in attendance from making the long journey to the remote location of Low Riggs farm. It’s an isolated hill farm on the Middlesmoor Estate which is 3 miles from the nearest road and 10 miles away from the nearest shop. Low Riggs’ situation has a defining impact on how the Hattans farm. The location effects the inputs and outputs on the farm, which can be challenging yet liberating in its simplicity. As Andrew told us, “We have to know what we have, understand our resource and work with what we can.” Stonebeck Wensleydale is a seasonally produced cheese which is a practical example of the Hattan’s ethos of simplicity. Low Riggs Farm sees very windy, wet, and snowy weather. The land is classified as severely disadvantaged: the maritime climate makes it a severe place to inhabit cattle, the soils are thin and waterlogged from October to March and in Summer it dries out quickly and becomes clay like. This means that their herd cannot graze outside all year and producing enough feed to milk the cows over the long winter would be challenging. In order to milk the cows all year round and thus make cheese, the Hattans would need to buy in feed which would be costly, be detrimental to the cheese’s flavour and would be difficult to deliver along the farm’s 3-mile-long single-track road. “Like pushing water uphill to make cheese all year round” is how Andrew described it.  

Low Riggs’ remote, rugged land requires a hardy herd to withstand it. Andrew currently manages 20 Northern Dairy Shorthorns who are native to Yorkshire, Lancashire, West Cumberland and Northumberland. They have evolved in harsh climates and as such have shaggy thick coats, are thick skinned and have long legs relative to their body size. The Northern Dairy Shorthorns are dual cows meaning that you can produce milk, butter and cheese from the heifers and meat from the bull calves. In the post-war push for increased productivity, the dual cow fell out of fashion as farmers opted for cows that yield more milk. Now the Northern Dairy Shorthorns are a rare breed but are still ideally suited to the Dales which was evidenced this year. Historically, the cows are in Winter housing from October to May but after running out of Winter fodder, they were turned out early this year on the 15th April. Spring was late this year and nothing really started growing until the end of May at Low Riggs. Yet Andrew was gobsmacked that not only did the cows find enough food to survive but they even consumed enough to produce milk. This reinforced his belief in their hardiness and that this is the right breed for his farm. 

Cultivating rich and varied meadowland is important to the Hattans for giving their cows a good diet and improving the flavours in the milk used for cheesemaking, as well as for supporting a habitat for other often endangered species. Since 1945 the UK’s uplands area has lost 97% of original uncultivated hay meadows. Now all 35 acres of Low Riggs’ meadows are being restored and are a Biodiversity Action Plan habitat, with the goal of reaching 25 species per square metre. This is a slow process, ten years in one of the farm’s meadows has already met this goal, which is commendable. The hay meadows are in restoration projects with no fertilisers or nitrogen used on them and prescriptions that they won’t be cut until the ground-nesting birds have nested and species have seeded. This has had a positive impact on the numbers of rare birds sighted on the farm including ban owls, northern lapwings and great snipe. Unlike with planted herbal lays, which we hear about a lot at the moment, this delay in cutting allows the fields to become self seeding, removing the reliance on bought in seed to introduce plant biodiversity. 

The Hattans work to manage their farm according to what the land determines is practical, as well as with a view to doing what is ‘right’ for their land in restoring it and encouraging biodiversity. Their decision to make cheese also came from the desire to balance business practicality and romanticism. Andrew and Sally took the farm on as first-generation farmers in 2007 and initially whatever Andrew did with cash flow, breeding and productivity, the farm was still unviable. They concluded that small scale commodity production would not work for them and no matter how much they improved productivity, their profitability would not change. They needed to change their farming model if they were to be able to stay living in such a beautiful place and so turned to cheese.  

Crucially, the Hattans love cheese. They also had a change in their agri-environment scheme which meant that they could channel funding into a guaranteed income like cheesemaking, rather than using money for a one-off purchase such as a shed or a tractor. Cheese made sense for them practically as it has a highly concentrated value, is seasonal and they could utilise the outputs of their land. It also allowed them to connect with the history of the land and revive the cheesemaking traditions of Low Riggs. Cheese was made at the farm until 1962, as well as across neighbouring farms. There is a rich but sadly fading history of Dales-type of cheeses and historically each Dale would make their own version before the post-war move to industrialised cheese meant heritage recipes were lost. The cheese made at Low Riggs would likely have been inspired by the local abbeys founded by Cistercian monks (Jervaulx Abbey and Fountains Abbey) and their French heritage of cheese. When researching recipes, the Hattans used historical references as well as first-hand information from a local cheesemaker, Mrs Peacock, who had lots of experience to share given her age of 101!  

The Hattans’ shrewd practicality when it comes to using their land and making their business viable, as well as their determination to connect to the history of a place that they have chosen to build their family life, has culminated in Stonebeck Wensleydale. Stonebeck is a rich, buttery cheese with a complex, fruity flavour. Its texture is crumbly but with a juicy moisture that makes it more-ish to eat. I’d encourage you to enjoy it while you can because the cheesemaking season will end at some time in the Autumn and it will be early summer when it returns to our shops. It’s a versatile cheese and can be eaten in many ways but my preference is to keep it simple and have it with a slice of bread and a piece of fruit.