Farm of the Week: Success is enough cottage cheese to fill York Minster

IT started with 10 cows, a Clydesdale horse, 30 acres and an overdraft bigger than the value of the entire farm.

However, today Longley Farm provides employment for more than 100 people, sells dairy products all over the country and provides an income to dozens of farmers across the North of England.

The company, based near Holmfirth, recently celebrated its 60th birthday and boasts an impressive array of claims, including having helped to kick-start the popularity of Jersey cattle in the North of England again.

It produces 40 million litres of milk each year and enough cottage cheese to fill York Minster. As well as selling popular yoghurts and creams across the country the business has an international market, with France proving a strong destination for its cottage cheese.

As well as being a great Yorkshire farming success story, the story of Longley Farm is also one of a family farm and business that has done well.

Based high in the Pennines in Last of the Summer Wine country, the farm came into the possession of Edgar Dickinson MBE and his brother Joseph OBE, who inherited it from a great-uncle.

Quickly establishing markets for the milk they produced, they paid off the overdraft and created a thriving farm.

However as with many success stories the journey towards greatness started with one wise decision. After the end of rationing controls in 1954 the brothers Dickinson began producing pasteurised cream, one of the first places in the country to do so.

They would later move into yoghurts and in 1973 the business became the first to make cottage cheese on a commercial scale in Europe.

Today the second generation of the family, Joseph's son Jimmy Dickinson is the man in charge.

He jokes about how there has been just one change in management in the firm's 60-year history but the farm and company maintain a strong sense of loyalty, with some staff having worked at the dairy for more than 44 years.

He gives a lot of credit to the farm's success to its use of Jersey cattle which were virtually unrecognised in the North until they began using them. "Jerseys have a very good name but most importantly they produce milk which is great for our products."

Naturally, work of the size and scope of Longley Farm has meant that one farm is not enough to cope with the demand for milk.

The family's dairy unit has since moved to near Barnsley where they run a herd of 250 milkers, a number they hope to increase in the next few years. However, the area around the old Longley Farm remains home to several dairy farms whose milk passes through the processing plant and factory on the site of the old farm.

Mr Dickinson said: "My father was the president of the Jersey Cattle Society, an organisation I am still involved with.

"Obviously as time moved on we needed to buy more milk. We used to buy from the milk marketing board before it disbanded and we moved on to deals with individual farmers.

"We pay one of the highest milk prices for what we are buying, it certainly is not the lowest. What we have tried to do is to create stability in terms of what we are doing rather than have a milk price that goes up and down. The stability allows farmers to be able to plan for the future and make investments in their holdings."

Mr Dickinson's involvement with cattle continues to be strong and just prior to my visit he had been meeting the Jersey Cattle Society as part of their campaign to help make sure that a product labelled as Jersey Butter contains nothing but Jersey milk.

"I have always been interested in farming," he said. "And I think that because we are interested we have some understanding of the issues that farmers in general are facing – nobody can make a living on just fresh air."

The shortage of cash in the dairy farming sector was underlined this year with the collapse of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative.

Mr Dickinson and Longley Farm helped provide a home for several farmers who were affected by the collapse of the co-operative, offering them contracts just a few days after the announcement.

In spite of the collapse he remains upbeat about the importance of co-operatives in farming but harbours concerns about farming in 2009. "The model of a co-operative remains a good idea.

"When you are dealing with such a small number of market places and buyers as you are with supermarkets you need to be involved in a collective selling of milk. If you look at the proportion of the cash that goes to the farmer in the retail price year-on-year you will see that it has gone down and down and down.

"Farming is not a classic industry, it is a lifestyle decision and making the decision to stop doing it is a huge thing." He added that he thought a change in the scenario was unlikely until we faced milk shortages, something which has not come yet.

Mr Dickinson modestly does not consider his farm and firm as a model of how things could be.

"My father always said that you have to look beyond the farm-gate. He recognised that in 1954 – 50 plus years later that is what the farming industry is being told to do.

"However today is harder. In that time you had a number of markets available to you, you had milkmen, corner shops and traders. Now if you are starting out you will face a lot of competition for just a small number of consumers."