IF you're looking for an example of a co-operative that embraces both the old and the new, look no further than West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers.
Its traditional, generations-old techniques and recipes sit side by side with bang up-to-date marketing techniques.?
Who else would have gained national media coverage for suggesting that its cows moo with a distinctly West Country accent? And who would have thought of pointing a web camera at a slowly maturing cheddar cheese??
And if you think that sounds daft it's only as daft as the more than 500,000 people from all over the world (present company included) who regularly tune in to see how it's getting on.
Chairman of the co-operative Philip Crawford suggests that, while the co-operative's 14 members are all committed to the business of cheese making they also like to enjoy themselves: "Just because we are hardworking traditional farmers doesn't mean we don't have a sense of humour or lots of imagination.?
"We prefer to take our product seriously, less so ourselves. Like any industry we have to make sure people remember that what we do is of value and that our products are worth buying. We are pleased we've been able to do that, and send out a positive message about a section of the UK dairy industry, and that's not always easy."
Mr Crawford explains that the co-operative brings a number of benefits to members: "As with any farmers co-operative there's strength in numbers and not only can the members consolidate resources and get better deals on products and services they need to run their businesses, they can also apply for support from organisations such as Defra and the Milk Development Council to help fund new marketing initiatives.?
"By having the Farmhouse Cheese Company to market and promote their cheeses each individual member gains the benefit of the generic campaign they would otherwise be unable to afford on an individual basis and the campaign benefits from being able to draw upon a range of fantastic Cheddars and the people who make them."
And Mr Crawford says there's always room for new members: "The number of members isn't restricted and should another farmhouse Cheddar maker who shares our values and interests and is willing to contribute to the group come along then they would be welcome. We're a democratic bunch and all the members help to define the strategy of the group at our six-weekly meetings."
And while the co-operative's more gimmicky marketing has helped to raise its profile, it's a more mundane EU initiative ? the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme ? that has perhaps done most for the West Country Farmhouse Cheddar brand.?
The PDO scheme was established in 1993 to protect the names of traditional foods and drinks in order to define their authenticity and preserve their place of origin (eg the Champagne region of France), traditional methods of production and essential ingredients. West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is one of a small and exclusive list of British foods protected in this way.
Cheese can only be called ?West Country Farmhouse Cheddar' if it is hand-made from milk from Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall herds and then aged for at least nine months on the farm, keeping the link with the farmer.
Mr Crawford says that having PDO status matters to customers: "Consumer commitment to supporting a regional identity stems from the realisation that some products are inherently better when they are created in a particular geographic location (or terroir as the French would describe it) and that buying products from their original source helps preserve something of cultural as well as socio-economic value.?
"Our PDO status safeguards an historically important food from the inevitable pressures and demands of large scale and industrial food production. This appeals to consumers everywhere, at home and abroad."
And, says Mr Crawford, there are added benefits for consumers from the West Country: "By supporting locally-sourced foods consumers help to reduce unnecessary food miles and return more of the revenue to the producer. Sourcing foods which can be grown and produced anywhere as near to the point of consumption as possible makes perfect sense."?
To see how the cheddar is maturing or to find out more about the co-operative visit www.cheddarvision.tv.