Tell us a bit about you
My name is Sam Steggles and I run Fielding Cottage and we are in Norfolk, about 10 miles west of Norwich. We started building Fielding Cottage about 10 years ago, when my wife and I went on holiday and came back with 10 goats and it has snowballed from there. We process our own goat milk so we are 100% goat milk dairy.
I was born on a farm 37 years ago, though my grandfather sold it when I was 7 years old, all I have ever wanted to do was farm. Before making cheese, I looked at aquaculture, anaerobic digestion, but both of these ideas required about £1m in investment, and that was about 10-12 years ago and I did not have that sort of money.
It was really livestock that was my passion. When I was 12 years old I had pedigree Simmentals and I bought and sold cows and calves, I never had any experience of goats. My sister in law passed away when she was 25, which gave us a kick up the backside, life is too short: if you are going to do something, get on and do it, the worse thing that can happen is you fail, so get on and do it. We got married, went on holiday in Cumbria and came back with 10 goats, two of which were named Gooh and Gah as that was all my 3 month old son could say at the time.
We kept breeding the goats and now we have a sizeable herd, and I have both a son and a daughter. William is now 10 years old, and Polly is 8. They get involved, and William has some goats on the paddock. It is a real family thing.
One Christmas, my parents bought me a Jersey cow. The dogs started to bark and I was told to go and tell the dogs to be quiet. I opened up the curtains and there stood Sophie, with a red ribbon around her neck. I would milk Sophie by hand before school each day, and sell it to my mum and then drink it and have it on my cornflakes. I managed to buy and sell enough calves, and a few sheep when at 12 years old, I rented my first farm. It was 30 acres and everything stemmed from there. School was not for me, so I left at 15 and went to agricultural college and studied a national diploma in agriculture at Rittel, near Chelmsford.
After that, I went to Harper Adams where I did an HND in agrifood marketing and business studies. At this point, I sold my herd of Simmentals and bought a house where my friends and I lived through college and that helped me pay the mortgage and then I came home. After graduation, I took a job selling poultry equipment up and down the country and then I got married, went on holiday and came back with goat.
We just kept growing and were doing farmers markets, food festivals and all that sort of stuff and we have never said no to anyone, really, if someone asked us for something, we said yes and then worried about it afterwards which has proved ok until now…at some point we may come unstuck.
A month ago I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Nuffield farming scholarship which is very exciting. My travels will take me to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and China and my paper is titled ‘The journey to maturity, navigating sustainable food business growth’. So within that, I hope to go and visit cheese makers, dairy businesses and other businesses and individuals, organisations who have seen significant growth in their businesses and have endured all of the steps along the way, staffing it, recruiting the right people, managing cash flow, financing it, keeping relationships with your customers, developing new products and markets and how they have managed all these various aspects of growth and lessons learned from the mistakes they have made, which is equally, if not more important, as getting it right, as we learn from our mistakes.
Outside of work, I try and go and watch my children in the sports fixtures at school – I get a lot of pleasure out of that; I was playing rugby until recently, but I cannot afford an injury now. I am keen on field sports, shooting and I really enjoy cooking.
If I were not a cheese maker, I don’t think I could have done anything else, I genuinely do not know how someone can sit in an office and sit and stare at a computer screen all day; doing the same thing day in and day out would drive me potty. Where my sister knew she was going to be a doctor from the age of 14, I always knew I wanted to be a farmer and milk goats and wanted to be with animals. Whereas now, I spend a lot of time in the office, doing the paperwork running the business, sales, but I still really enjoy that, and it is different when it is your own, rather than when you are working for a big company and you don’t mind the early starts, late finishes, and everything else that is involved.
As well as the cheeses we make, we have a skin care range based on goat milk. That came about as a result of a gentleman who used to buy goat milk from us at a farmer’s market, he told us he would freeze it in ice cube trays, and that he would rub these goats milk ice cubes on his head, as it helped his scalp condition. So now we have a skin care range: soaps, hand and body lotions which goes down well.
We make a bar of goat milk soap, natural and unscented, a bar rather than a liquid which is wrapped in a nice paper, so no plastic packaging. We also have goat milk hand and body lotion, we have a natural or a rose and geranium scented version, great for psoriasis and eczema and just dry hands – after all the washing up great for hands. My grandmother calls it gardener’s hands and it works wonders for those.
We also built some holiday cottages on the farm which helps us run residential cheese making courses; we had people ask if they could come and make cheese with us and we used to put them up in the local pub. So we thought we could put them up here, see how we make cheese and educate them at the same time.
In addition to the holiday cottages and cheese making courses, we have a little shop which is a small wooden shed in the yard which works on an honesty system for cheese, a jar of honey, potatoes, jars of jam, eggs, where people write in a book what they had and leave their cash in a tin.
Tell us about your dairy: where is it, what do you have in it, favourite bits of kit, things you would like to change (if anything) or something that would make your life better/easier
The dairy has evolved. When we started, we were in a 20ft shipping container and now we have a purpose built dairy, with white walls and everything. We are now planning the next expansion which will be into another building, in the fullness of time. We have to plan that quite carefully and check that we get it right: once you have poured concrete or cut a hole in the wall, you cannot put it back.
Our dairy houses our HSHT pasteuriser, our cheese vats – we have the big one, 5,000 litres which has automatic cutting and stirring and we have 6 smaller ones that are about 300 – 400 litres each which that we use for the Wensum White. We have a peg mill. We did have a hand mill, a little one that you wind the handle on the side, but when we went from the 1,000 litre vat to the 5,000 litre vat, we now have an automated electric mill. That is probably our favourite piece of kit. That and the cheese vat go hand in hand. I often think with the electric peg mill – why didn’t we buy it earlier! We made do with a hand mill for 10 yrs.
There are the cold rooms, we have three presses; we make the Norfolk Mardler in 1.5kg rounds and now we are making them in 20kg blocks too so they can be cut on a cutting machine and packed. We have a cold room and maturing rooms. We have a vac packer, the scales and all the labelling sort of stuff.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
Go bigger than you think. We started with a 180 litre vat, and when we went to buy a new one, we were told go for a 500 litre vat, but we went to 1,000 litres and even that was not big enough. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, you can put 500 litres in a 1,000 litre vat but not vice versa.
Have the belief in yourself, I really think if you believe you can do it, you will do it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, everyone started somewhere, and they would have had to have asked the same questions that you think you can’t ask because you look stupid. I have looked stupid numerous times and the only way you learn is to ask questions and equally important, is to listen to what is being said rather than what you think is being said.
Make sure you get a fall on your floor so that it runs to your drains. Talk to people get their experiences because it will make life a lot easier.
Go and spend some time doing it because I think a lot of people think that there is this romantic idea of making cheese and the reality of it is that whilst, yes, you can be stirring your vat or whatever you are doing, that part of the process can be very therapeutic, but for the next 2 hours you are standing at the sink doing the washing up and it is not as romantic as people think.
Be prepared to get it wrong, be very prepared to get it wrong. When we started to make Wensum White, we were getting cheese that was totally inedible. The amount of cheese we have thrown out from the learning process is unreal, but you learn from it and then when you have got it right, you need to be able to repeat it day after day.
It is crucial to have a good support network around you. When we started, we had no money – we still have no money, but we got by on a shoestring, wheeling and dealing and getting the people who were the most effective and cheapest but they were not the best, whereas now we try and have the best, someone who does not know what they are doing can spend 2 days doing a job at £300 a day whereas the person who is at the top of their game gets it done in 1 day for £500. We learned that the hard way. Talk to people, that is the biggest thing, go spend some time with people doing it, otherwise you will never know if you like it or not and from our point of view, we won’t take anyone on unless they have been for a trial, we don’t just look at a cv.
Where can we find your cheese?
You can get it in farm shops and delis across the country, also Morrison’s and Waitrose in East Anglia, and Lidl across the country, not to mention finding it on selected airlines (but am not allowed to say which ones!)
Favourite cheese making music?
I am not very good when it comes to music, in fact, I have never owned a cd player let alone a cd. We tend to have the radio on and it depends on who is in first in the morning as to what station is on. It will be Radio 1 if it is the youngest members of the team. I like Radio 2. If I had to pick a song – and this sits on the bottom of my computer screen, we were there wrapping cheese late one night or early in the morning, and this sums it all up, ‘don’t stop believing’. The minute you stop believing and doubting yourself, then you are in trouble.
Sam, Fielding Cottage