Chees maker preaches lessons to new food start ups

Judy Bell, chairman of the region's food group, Deliciouslyorkshire.
Judy Bell, chairman of the region's food group, Deliciouslyorkshire.
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BELIEVE IT or not given her status now as an award-winning cheesemaker, but Judy Bell was once pretty clueless, by her own admission, about the world of business.

In the late 1980s, Judy swapped a background in pharmacy for cheese production using ewe’s milk - a move considered bizarre back then but proved a masterstroke in time.

The food brand that she founded, Shepherds Purse based in Newsham, Thirsk, has now been handed over to her daughters Katie and Caroline to run, leaving Judy back where she started when she first had the idea to produce food.

Then, she sought advice from peers more knowledgeable about food marketing and business growth than her. Now, she is the chairman of one such network, Deliciouslyorkshire, and is keen to help other start-ups.

“I was involved in Yorkshire Pantry, the original regional food group set up in 1988 by North Yorkshire County Council. I’d started Shepherds Purse with no knowledge of business or marketing. It was a niche product I wanted to make and a lot of farmers thought I’d lost my marbles.

“Finding other cheese makers and getting the information to develop my business was more difficult then.”

Yorkshire Pantry was a useful group for the fledgling cheese maker and she became its chairman. Later, a loss of government funding led to the group’s re-birth as Deliciouslyorkshire and after time spent away from the network to concentrate on cheese, Judy has returned.

Deliciouslyorkshire now runs out of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s offices in Harrogate and has more than 300 members.

Judy believes the conditions for independent food companies to thrive in Yorkshire are right.

“The general public is more adventurous in their tastes now, so there is more opportunity for people to produce more unusual foods. People still have the same issues we had when we were starting up but they can turn to Deliciouslyorkshire for advice.”

But farmers thinking of diversifying should do their homework, she said: “It’s getting the right advice, it’s knowing the market that you are going into, you have to do a bit of networking and testing - start off small and grow slowly, or perhaps come together as a co-operative of small producers.”

Judy says Shepherds Purse has seen huge growth in supplying smaller start-up food outlets in the region - recording an 18 per cent growth in trade with independents over the last year alone.