Wyke Farms, the independent UK dairy firm, has carved a place among the country's largest cheese makers and is now looking to expand internationally. In this month's Just the Answer, Dean Best spoke to managing director Richard Clothier about how Wyke has grown at home and its ambitions abroad.

just-food: The dairy industry has suffered from consumers looking for healthier products and assuming that dairy means high in fat. How can the industry convince shoppers that dairy is a key part of a balanced diet?

Richard Clothier: The industry has not done enough. Our industry has been pretty inept when it comes to conveying the benefits people can get from fresh milk and cheese. There is the perception that dairy is fatty and unhealthy. If you're a growing, fit individual, fat can make a useful contribution to an energy-rich diet. We haven't done enough to protect our position and maybe if we look at some of the legislation and advertising restrictions on cheese and dairy products to children, we've certainly not got the message across to the people that are making the decisions, which is an awful shame.

j-f: The debate around nutritional labelling seems to have hindered the dairy sector and cheese makers.

RC: A traffic light system is an over-simplification of a wider issue. The issue around obesity is a wider, social issue. Food manufacturers have had to take it on the chin for the fact, for instance, that most of the schools in Bristol don't have any playing-fields any more. There needs to be control on things like sugar, for example, but if we can get people back to a more natural diet, in the long term we will reap the rewards of overall public health.

j-f: Can the dairy industry collaborate and work together on these kinds of issues?

RC: Sometimes I think we are all a bit fragmented and everyone is driving their own agenda. The British Cheese Board does a good job but it's very difficult to be an ambassador for everyone. As we have our own farm and we have our own cows, I wear a bit of a farming hat as well. Farmers could have done more to project a better image of the products that we produce and maybe the manufacturers weren't the place to start.

j-f: That would be tough, though, given the economic conditions farmers have experienced recently.

RC: On our own farms we have struggled over the last couple of years but, at the same time, had we been more organised we could have taken a bit more control ourselves. The whole industry has been battered over the last seven or eight years. Now we are coming out of it and hopefully we are entering the period where buying relationships are being analysed and have changed now for the better. We never want to go back to the situation where retailers were running online auctions and people had to bid for their own business because it just fosters insecurity, weakens the supply base and, in the long term, puts the source of raw materials and food at risk. Last October, cheese was in danger of being put on allocation. The supply situation got that desperate. If we hadn't have got the prices up, we could have been in the situation where dairy products in UK shops would have been shorted.

j-f: Fear of allocation was one of the arguments used by UK retailers when their role in price-fixing in the dairy sector was exposed last year.

RC: Yes it was and I spoke out in support of them. At the time, the farming base spoke to retailers and said prices have to come up or we will lose our milk supply base and there won't be enough dairy products in the long term. We would have been desperately short of milk at the end of last year rather than just very short of milk. The price increase wasn't a huge amount but at the same time it was enough to restore a bit of confidence that somewhere people do care. There was a lot wrong with how it was done and how it was administered but there was some good done and things could have been a lot worse.

j-f: But if retailers had been more generous with the prices they paid to farmers in the past, they wouldn't have had to resort to those tactics.

RC: I would agree with that and, to be fair, most of the retailers would probably agree that the way relationships had got three or four years ago was pretty shocking. Both sides had reached an all-time low. There was no loyalty. Relations on both sides had broken down and farmers felt helpless.

Richard Clothier, Managing Director, Wyke Farms

j-f: In this inflationary climate, how is Wyke faring with retailers?

RC: It's going really well. The whole industry has had to grow up. Three or four years ago, there was real damage being done to the supply base and there was a danger that it was getting out of hand. That was a wake-up call for the industry. People are starting to value the raw material supplier, that they can't be taken for granted and that they won't always be there if they can't make an honest living. By and large, most of the retailers have changed their approach to buying raw materials.

j-f: How is Wyke looking to stay relevant to retailers and consumers?

RC: We've focused on innovation because we realise that if the big players are supplying the bulk of the volume, you've got to do something different to get the ear of the big supermarket buyers. Some areas of dairy have been pretty uninspiring. It's in the interests of some the bigger players to maintain the status quo because they've got the majority of the business. What we identified fairly early on was that health was potentially a big driver and an under-exploited area of dairy. The feedback we get from our Leskol half-fat cheese is absolutely phenomenal.

The other growth area within dairy is provenance and the Wyke brand is all about provenance and point of origin. We've seen an upsurge of interest in natural, wholesome foods with regionality, so we've seen a lot of good gains on the Wyke brand.

j-f: Provenance is a big pull in the US, where Wyke has just announced plans to break into the market. Tell us more about those plans.

RC: As a business, we're well-positioned to offer something different in the US. They certainly buy into businesses with history. We have got a unique story to tell people and that's one of the things that make us different in the UK category and maybe it's something they haven't got at all in the US.

j-f: What is the extent of your ambitions internationally?

RC: We would like to be a premium global cheese brand. There are some good, traditional-type, European cheese brands, which do well in all regions of the world. They have something unique in terms of flavour and story, which generally is a well-executed marketing plan. We can do that. We can sell vintage cheddar to all regions of the world and we can use those premium markets to the benefit of producers in the Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire areas. The sky's the limit. We've got quite a broad geographical spread. We're getting into most of the regions of the world now and it's a question of working hard and educating the local populations about what good vintage cheddar can do.

j-f: That sounds a big challenge for an independent.

RC: It's a massive challenge [but] we've got a very, very unique proposition. This is a moment in time now for the Wyke brand. Consumers have never been more receptive to a type of message that a business like Wyke has and we're seeing that in terms of listings and brand growth. If we get everything right, we can do something special. We're the fourth-largest brand in UK cheddar now but the largest independent cheddar brand. We are mixing with the big boys but at the same time we have got some distinct advantages. We've got a good pace of business that some of those other bigger companies can't match. We are light on our feet, we make decisions quickly, and we develop products and respond to challenges quicker. That's what you have to do if you're an independent fighting against much bigger guys. You have to be faster and lighter on your feet.