The British Isles can hold its head high for producing some of the most popular cheeses on the planet.

There are more than 200 artisan cheesemakers across the nation, each crafting new stories full of regional identity and history.

One Devon-based dairy stands as a beacon of excellence, building an ethical B Corp business around a passion for crafting some of the world’s most exceptional and coveted cheeses.

Sitting around the kitchen table - well-seasoned with countless conversations over meals, the Parsons family who run Sharpham Dairy are at the beating heart of the cheese industry.

Between Greg and Nicky Parsons, their four children and a further team of eight, Sharpham Dairy produces some of the finest cheeses in the world.

This year saw its Cremet receive 3-stars in the Great Taste Awards, putting it in the top two per cent of all 14,195 products entered around the world. Judges said it was ‘exquisite’ in the blind taste tests.

Forty two years ago, Sharpham Dairy was built from the ground up and the focus hasn’t shifted since.

At its core is good farming, a strong sense of place and environmental stewardship. But also, with its grassroots approach to thinking - questioning the rules of business and going back to basics. For starters, redefining what success means in the first place.

Greg says: ‘Nicky and I took over the reins of Sharpham Dairy in July 2019, having fallen in love with their range of soft cow and goat cheeses.

‘Our mission has always been clear - we want to create cheese that’s a force for good. Profit for us is not just about financial gains; it’s about purposeful progress.

‘Success for the business means that we can comfortably pay our staff and suppliers, ensure we’ve got happy customers and we’re all proud of the cheese we’re making.’

Exmouth Journal: Mollie, Nicky, Annie and Greg share a cheeseboard at their kitchen tableMollie, Nicky, Annie and Greg share a cheeseboard at their kitchen table (Image: Nick Hook)

Nicky agrees: ‘Being a purpose-led business we see the business as a vehicle to support other people. First and foremost, we pay above the living wage and strive to create a lovely environment for our team so they feel valued.

‘Beyond that, we embrace ethical sourcing and forge partnerships with like-minded companies so we can support them too.

‘This creates a network that not only produces remarkable cheeses but also uplifts the community.’

Like-minded businesses are those who also share Sharpham Dairy’s cleaner, greener, fairer vision - ideally within Devon to keep the money circulating locally.

Sharpham’s sourdough crackers are made by The Fresh Flour Company in Buckfastleigh, using heritage wheats, local honey, Devon sea salt and soft water from Dartmoor.

Their chutney is made by Highfield Preserves who incorporated Greg and Nicky’s favourite Devon brands into the recipes: Hunts Cider, Bays Brewery and Sharpham Pinot Noir goes into the range of preserves.

‘We include Good Game, West Country Olives, Mrs Gill’s cakes and Lyme Bay in our hampers too, championing the very best of the region,’ Nicky says.

‘Exeter-based Buddy Creative design our packaging, RAW PR handle our communications. We ensure our packaging is recyclable wherever possible.

‘We even include gift tags inoculated with bee-attracting wildflower seeds. Annie and I cut them out together in the evenings, it’s a cathartic process!’

The Parsons talk with such clarity about doing good things, it all seems very logical. Greg sums it up by saying: ‘It’s the Devon way. By nature, we’re community spirited people.’

Exmouth Journal: Sharpham Dairy works with other Devon cheesemakers and producersSharpham Dairy works with other Devon cheesemakers and producers (Image: Sharpham Dairy)

Nicky adds: ‘We also have a big family and we know that the decisions we make will impact everyone from a climate perspective.

‘We’re social people so it suits us that people naturally gravitate towards cheese. It provides a centrepiece, it’s multi-sensory and draws people together.

‘When we see friends, they know we’ll rock up with a cheese board! We’re always out chatting with customers at festivals and events.

‘We support retailers so they understand our culture. We developed our ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions with the likes of Greendale, Darts Farm, Ben’s Farm Shop etc, so they can ask questions over a big cheese feast. It’s a two way process - we learn from them too.’

Beyond the cheese sector, Greg wholeheartedly believes that a connected food and drink network across Devon with open conversations flowing, is more efficient for everyone.

He says: ‘Having built businesses, a career and a happy life in the hospitality, food and drink industry, I feel obliged to support the industry back.

‘My position as chair of Food Drink Devon enables me to help others thrive too.

‘With 350 members, we provide a voice for smaller businesses in Devon, while actively promoting Devon as a destination for outstanding food and drink to those out of the county.’

As Greg and Nicky chat, finishing each other’s sentences and never far away from a warm smile, it’s clear they are a strong team built on unity and respect. No amount of corporate team-building can replicate the bond of trust within a family.

Exmouth Journal: The Parsons' mission is to create great cheese that's also a force for goodThe Parsons' mission is to create great cheese that's also a force for good (Image: Sharpham Dairy)

Having spent over 20 years working in dairies across the West Country, Greg knows the cheese industry inside out. ‘Sharpham Cheese’s foundations are built upon heritage that we must never take for granted. While respecting the past, we embrace the freedom we have as a family to put our own stamp on the business.’

Like many dairies, cheesemaking is a family affair. A merchandiser at Selfridges, Mollie Parsons, 24, complements her day job by representing Sharpham Dairy in and around London.

‘When I came back from uni, I went into the dairy with dad at 5.30am and gained hands-on experience making cheese. Now I’ve got a good understanding of how it’s made, I can bring our vision to people while sampling at festivals, events and London cheese shops like Bayley & Sage. I love playing a part in our family business - we’re all invested in it, it brings us all together.’

Annie, 19, often goes in early to the dairy, packing cheeses and handling orders. ‘The first glass of champagne I had was when mum and dad first took over the business. I think it’s cool to be in the cheese world.

‘It’s helping to build my funds for travelling this year.’

Daniel, 33, contributes with design and creative feedback, while Sam, 33, worked in the business during lockdown.

Even the dog Ronnie is the dairy’s mascot and chief taster!

Exmouth Journal: The award-winning Rushmore was created when cow and goat milk was accidentally mixedThe award-winning Rushmore was created when cow and goat milk was accidentally mixed (Image: Sharpham Dairy)Nicky says: ‘We’ve never worked so hard - but the persistence has paid off.

‘2023 was a terrific year for awards - last year alone Sharpham Rushmore won Champion Cheese at Taste of the West, and Gold at the Global Cheese Awards, the Great British Food Awards and the Food Drink Devon Awards.

‘It was created when cow and goat milk was accidentally mixed - but to avoid waste, we ploughed on and made the cheese anyway. Running a small dairy means you can be agile to respond to these opportunities.’

This year will bring its own challenges for Sharpham Dairy, which will involve navigating moving the dairy to a larger premise at South Devon Food Hub near Totnes.

Head cheesemaker Peter Howarth says: ‘We’ve now outgrown our premise, so the increased capacity of the new dairy will provide a fantastic opportunity to produce more volume while continuing to innovate and develop our range.

‘We’re looking forward to working alongside other food producers and developing a community here so we can support each other.’

Cheese is a product of its environment; it expresses everything that’s been put into it during its life.

The thousands of decisions that create the final product, from the milk to the terroir, the place in which it quietly sits and matures, and all the factors you can’t put your finger on but of course makes a difference somehow.

When you enjoy a slice of Sharpham Brie or a velvety Rustic, just imagine the place of love with which it comes from. You’ll savour it all the more.