They run a business that’s all about enjoyment and sweet treats – but sisters Louise Hart and Jenny Simmons have been through some exceptionally tough times in both their business and personal lives in recent years. However, their strong sisterly bond – and the inspiring example set by their late mum Jill Cawood – are what keeps them battling through. Louise tells us more.
Being brought up on an Island dairy farm, surrounded by animals and having the freedom of the countryside, made it an idyllic childhood for Louise and her three younger sisters – and it got even better when their mum decided to diversify the business and start making ice cream.
“We were raised on ice cream from that point” laughs Louise. “We got to test it for mum, and also were allowed to eat the out-of-date stuff. I guess our friends were quite envious”.
The family’s move into ice cream production came in 1989, as a practical way of using up milk that was surplus to the farm’s production quota. For Louise, then aged 14, it was also a valuable early lesson in farm diversification.
She always wanted to follow the family path into farming, but was keen to see the wider world, so after A-levels, went on to study in Kent, where she gained an Honours Degree in Agricultural Business Management.
Enjoying the bright lights of London life, she wasn’t exactly keen to rush back to the Island, so initially worked in IT for a couple of years, before joining a family business in Kent that grew tender crops like strawberries and mangetout in a controlled environment.
By 2003, though, the idea of moving back to her Island home and the family business was more appealing, and she returned to work alongside her mum and sister Jenny, who had already joined the family business and been part of its huge growth.
Because ice cream was such a seasonal product, Jill and Jenny had diversified again into retail sized cakes such as fruit cakes and traybakes, which were all year-round sellers. They grew their market by selling at dozens of farmers markets all over the Island and along the South Coast.
When Louise joined the operation, her first task was to use her business expertise to successfully apply for grant funding to double their farm’s kitchen production facilities.
By this time, farmers markets were losing out to farm shops, so the determined trio changed course again, setting up the Farmer Jack’s farm shop at Arreton, together with two local farming families, the Browns and the Pierces.
By 2010, they had set up their own Dairy Deli farm shop and Louise was actively involved with the local NFU, putting in long hours helping to promote Isle of Wight milk, for which they were passionate advocates.
Then in 2013 came the bombshell of mum Jill’s terminal cancer diagnosis – around the time when they were in talks with Medina Food Service to set up a dedicated Isle of Wight ice cream company.
There was no question that they would carry on, and Louise and Jenny worked with Steve and Caroline Ross at Medina Foodservice to offer a new soft scoop ice cream to use as much Isle of Wight Milk as possible.
Despite her illness, Jill was determined to be the first farmer on the Island to install a robotic milking plant – and lived to see that goal realised in early 2014.
It was a hectic time as they juggled the demands of Jill’s illness, the dairy herd, their farm shop and their top-end artisan ice cream brand Calbourne Classics, made with clotted cream and using only natural flavourings.
Then in June 2015 Jill sadly passed away – the same year that Jenny had a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of just 36, and had to begin treatment.
Not long afterwards, unbelievably, Louise also discovered a breast lump. Initially she was told it was nothing to worry about, and by the time she actually was diagnosed with cancer, at the age of 40, it had spread to her lymph nodes.
With Jenny still undergoing treatment, Louise went into surgery, followed by intensive chemotherapy. “At least I kept my hair” she says, with an ironic laugh.
All the while the two sisters were battling for their health and running the dairy herd and farm, they also had to keep positive for their combined family of five young children.
“It was quite a battle” says Louise “but we brought up the kids together and ran the business between us. It certainly brought us closer as sisters than we’d ever been.”
She continued with treatment until 2018, and underwent a total of 18 chemotherapy sessions and dozens of hospital trips to the mainland.
In 2017, while Louise was still in her treatment phase, the team, consisting of Jenny, Steve and Caroline Ross bought the iconic Minghella ice cream brand with all its recipes and intellectual property, to give them ownership of three quite distinct ice cream brands on the Island.
As Louise points out, Minghella, Calbourne Classics and Isle of Wight Ice Cream are three niche markets, but the common denominator is that they all use Island-produced milk.
“As businesswomen, we were very driven by our circumstances, and I suppose what we have gone through has made us more determined. Mum died being the first robotic dairy farmer on the Island, and that was important to her, and to us.
“Even while she was in London having hospital treatment, she would watch the robotics system on her i-Pad.”
As for her own and Jenny’s cancer experiences, Louise says: “We’ve become like one person, not two. If there was anything good that the cancer did for us, it was that”. Happily, 2019 was the first “clear” year for both sisters, although they will continue to have regular routine scans.
It means they can focus even more attention on the business, and took the decision to hand over the reins at the farm to a contracting company, Westover Farm Contractors, which allows them to put 100% of their effort into product development and the ice cream brands.
To date, they have a stable of over 100 different products and then there’s the Cowes ice cream parlour Bliss, which they opened during the pandemic as a way of selling their ice cream as a takeaway and to ensure their staff could keep their jobs. It proved so popular that they decided to keep it running.
“Apart from anything else it’s been a great way for people to taste all three brands and experience the difference between them” says Louise.
Calbourne Classics is also known for its delicious cakes, scones and desserts, which are supplied through Medina Food Service and can be found at outlets all over the Island.
That means life is likely to continue being hectic for Louise and Jenny, with their growing children – Thea, Ella and Charlie, and Oliver and Jasmine – plus ponies, chickens, cats and dogs as well as all the demands of the business.
But their experiences have changed them, and turned them into passionate advocates to women of the need for regular breast checks and promoting the message that early detection saves lives.
“We’ve also become much more mindful, better at switching off and managing emotions and thoughts” says Louise.
“Health is driven so much by our stress levels and I think we’ve becoming better at balancing things.
“We’ve had to make some big decisions in life and in business but we’ve learned that every storm passes.
“And mum always used to say – ‘You can’t control the waves, but you can learn how to surf”.