One of Gwynedd’s more interesting businesses, South Caernarfon Creameries is a farmer-owned cooperative which supplies dairy products to local, national and international markets.
In 1938, a small group of local farmers decided to set up their own milk processing venture so that they could get a higher price for their milk (and if you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know from our interviews with farmer Gareth Wyn Jones that getting fair prices for produce is still an issue today). Led by John Owen Roberts, the cooperative – at that time standing at 63 members – had whittled down the list of locations for the new venture to two potential properties: one in Pemprys, near Pentreuchaf, and the other in Chwilog. They decided on the latter, and South Caernarfon Creameries (SCC) has been operating there ever since.
Built on the site of an old woollen mill, SCC’s premises soon became home to the country’s first ever pasteuriser. Even as long ago as the 1930s SCC recognised the need to employ the latest technology to give its members a fighting chance; and a fighting chance was very much needed in those early days, given the resistance put up by some local farmers who were already selling direct to the public and didn’t fancy seeing their livelihoods threatened. Besides, they said – there have been other attempts at forming cooperatives in the past, and these have failed; what’s to stop the same thing happening again?
Thankfully, the cooperative thrived and grew, and in the first year John Owen Roberts realised he was onto something: with 63 farms on board, the profit that year was a massive £1,997 – the equivalent of almost £94,000 in 2016.
By 1942 milk was being bottled and sold locally. During the Second World War, milk from SCC was being packed onto trains for distribution in the north west of England. After the war the government realised just how much of a threat starvation had been to the British population during the wartime years, and made great efforts to support and encourage agricultural production by helping farmers to improve land, livestock and crops. Thanks to these efforts, by 1954 SCC’s membership had swelled to 1,200.
In the late 1950s cheese production began at the cooperative, due to milk production reaching a record high which had led to a surplus. In 1959 the ‘Caws Llŷn’ brand began production, a popular brand still recognised locally today. Today, with 10,000 tonnes of cheese being produced on site each year, SCC’s cheese portfolio extends to an impressive range of cheeses including Mild to Vintage Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Double Gloucester, Red Leicester and Welsh Caerphilly. The cooperative’s Cavern Aged Cheddar is matured underground in slate caverns, and is one of SCC’s most popular products. But perhaps the most unusual and impressive fact about SCC’s cheese is that in the early 1970s the cooperative was producing Feta and exporting it to Greece!
Today, South Caernarfon Creameries supply to supermarkets and wholesalers all over Wales and England, and as far afield as Malta and the United Arab Emirates. The cooperative also sells its Dragon brand products – you’re sure to have seen their butter and cheese in local shops – direct to the public at shows and produce fairs.
Since its inception, SCC’s mission has been to add value to its members’ milk by manufacturing high quality dairy products for sale at home and abroad. Members aren’t just ‘suppliers’ – they’re also shareholders, meaning they own 100% of the business. SCC has won a number of awards and has continued to invest in technology that helps its products really stand out, such as a £350,000 investment in a traditional butter churn – and SCC’s uniqueness is even more noticeable thanks to the cooperative’s policy of ensuring all packaging is bilingual.
Despite the cooperative’s numerous and impressive successes, it can still be a risky business. The biggest challenge facing SCC is the fact that milk prices are volatile and can range dramatically in a relatively short time period, and there’s the added challenge of Cheddar being a commodity product and very competitive.
Even so, South Caernarfon Creameries has big plans for the future, which from where we’re sitting looks extremely bright. They’ve just completed an £8m new cheese production facility on the Chwilog site and are in the process of upgrading their packaging facility to include more capacity and the ability to produce large volumes of pre-packed grated and sliced cheeses. From December 2016 SCC will be supplying Sainsbury’s for the supermarket’s Basics range, and the cooperative has a new contract with Lidl to supply an additional three Welsh cheeses in their stores.
South Caernarfon Creameries tell us that they aspire to “continue to grow [their] retailer and export business and develop new products to suit today’s consumer and market needs”. If this very determined, innovative and hard-working organisation’s history is anything to go by, we have every reason to believe they’ll succeed.