Located in the lush valley of the river Cych in rural mid-Wales, Caws Cenarth is one of the most renowned artisan cheese producers in the UK. Like so much entrepreneurship its origins were founded in adversity. In 1984, the European Union introduced milk quotas to prevent the rise in milk production. Farmers were given quotas and were penalised for exceeding them, so the excess milk could not be sold and was often poured down the drains. Like many small dairy farmers, the Adams family of Cenarth, a village of approximately 1000 people, were faced with ruin. It was a worrying time for both them and the local community, many of whom relied on the farm for their livelihood.
Concerned for the well-being of their employees as well as their family, Thelma Adams, the farmer’s wife, staged a protest to publicise the ludicrous decision to introduce quotas. The theme of the protest was Cleopatra, the iconic Queen of Egypt. Thelma filled a bath with milk and, like Cleopatra, bathed in it, pointing out that because of the quotas, it was cheaper to bathe in milk than water. As she said “The introduction of milk quotas caused heartbreak, disappointment and hardship in West Wales” and “I was determined not to waste the milk that was over the quota“.
As they did not want to sell the land for development or convert it to non-agricultural use, Thelma and her husband began thinking about how they could respond and save the farm, the jobs of their employees and the environment. Thelma had seen her parents making cheese and remembered that in June 1893, Elizabeth Beynon, a family ancestor, had graduated with a diploma in butter and cheesemaking from the agricultural department at University College Wales Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University). So, with the excess milk, she decided to add value and started to produce her now-famous Caerffili (Caerphilly) cheese, largely for family consumption. In 1986, she won a National UK “Edible Ideas” competition, and in 1987 she and her husband established their artisan cheese making business, Caws Cenarth. Her passion for cheese making soon saw her making some of the finest organic cheeses in the UK and receiving numerous accolades, including featuring on the BBC’s “Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain”, with her cheeses being sold in prestigious London retail outlets such as Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges. In 1998 she was commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales to make her award-winning Caerffili cheese in celebration of his 50th birthday.
Although she has no formal academic qualifications Thelma recognised the importance of education and an integral feature of the business, from the outset, was a gallery where visitors can see and have explained to them, how cheese is made. Additionally, she participated in the Welsh Government’s Dynamo project whereby Welsh entrepreneurs, like Thelma, visit schools and colleges to talk to pupils and students about their entrepreneurial journey. As she says “I hope my story has inspired people and give them the confidence to start their own ventures”.
As a result of Thelma’s enterprise, Caws Cenarth the longest established producer of Welsh farmhouse Caerffili, was the leader of the renaissance in Welsh cheesemaking. Today in the Principality there are some 25 artisan cheesemakers and over 150 different cheeses. Thelma is now retired but her son, Carwyn, runs the business which has continued to win awards not just for Thelma’s famous Caerffili but for the new cheeses he has introduced. Like his mother, Carwyn recognises the contribution of his 20 employees and pays tribute to them frequently for their hard work and dedication.
In 2018 Traditional Welsh Caerffili, made to Thelma’s original recipe, became protected by the European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and was the first cheese in Wales to attain Protected Food Name designation. Like Champagne, the cheese is protected from imitation, misuse and fraud as the designation recognises that the products are produced, processed and prepared in a specific region using recognised expertise. Commenting at the time on the award, Carwyn said “we are really excited to be able to protect the ‘Traditional Welsh Caerphilly/Caerffili name. It’s a guarantee of its quality and authenticity, and the skill and passion involved in the making”.
Like his mother some 36 years before him, however, Carwyn faced a crisis in 2020. Once the UK Government had decided to close all non-essential retail outlets and restaurants in an attempt to control the Covid-19 pandemic, Caws Cenarth saw its wholesale sales plummet like most other UK artisan cheese manufacturers. In March 2020, as a result of an 85 per cent reduction in demand from the hospitality sector, it stopped production. It had a quarter of a year’s supply of cheese and like other producers had to find new markets for its products. Eventually, Carwyn came up with what he called a ‘social experiment’ to save the business and benefit people struggling to put food on the table. As he said, “We’re making some amazing offers on our cheeses in a bid to keep our fantastic staff in work”. These included not just discounts and incentives but giving cheese away free to those who could not afford to buy it. However, the big shift was to selling directly to the consumer online. Whereas previously, most of their trade was wholesale, a natural response given their location, consumers are now able to choose from the range of cheeses available or purchase speciality packs from the website (cawscenarth.co.uk). Their orders are then either collected from the farm shop or delivered to their homes the next day. This way, hopefully, the venture can continue to be commercially viable, can provide jobs and income for the local community and can preserve the environment and cultural heritage of this part of rural Wales.
Out of adversity comes opportunity.
© Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org (2020). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.