A life beyond dairying
Many thought they were crazy to quit dairying just as it was starting to take off, but for Karen and Daryl Trafford it was a way to get back to farming their land in a more natural way. Now, after converting their 912-hectare property up the Lower Wangapeka valley back into sheep and beef, they are about to take their diversification a step further by opening a small cheesery.
Using high-protein milk from a small herd of organically farmed cows, they intend producing cheeses and dairy products using traditional methods, but with a modern twist. Their venture, which is still going through its final compliance checks, has already sparked a flurry of interest from customers wanting to try their products after they earned a highly commended placing in the dairy section of the recent Taste Farmers’ Markets Awards.
It is a far cry from their previous life as fulltime dairy farmers. For 22 years they supplied Fonterra, first as sharemilkers in Opotiki, then Ashburton, before buying their Wangapeka farm and converting it to milk 600 cows. But in 2008 they sold their stock and shares, tired of carrying such huge debt and the daily high production grind, and worried about the long-term effect such intensive farming was having on their land.
‘‘Some people thought we were mad to leave the industry when it was moving to a high and we were just about to reap the benefits,’’ Ms Trafford said, ‘‘but it was a way of lowering our debt and getting back to what we really wanted to do. ‘‘You get caught up in it and forget why you are there.’’ Although dairying had been good to them, they had always hankered to return to sheep and beef, with its less rigid lifestyle and lower environmental impact. With large areas of regenerating bush, some good walks and trout in the rivers, they wanted to preserve their ‘‘beautiful farm’’ for their four children, she said. While her husband runs almost 2000 ewes, 700 hoggets and 660 cattle on the 550ha of usable land, Ms Trafford experiments with producing food for the local market using a mixture of organic and biodynamic principles.
For a year they have been selling a small proportion of their prime lambs – processed and packaged by an abattoir in Cheviot – at the Nelson Farmers’ Market and direct from their gate. Fattened to 21-22 kilograms for taste rather than the 18-19kg required for export and priced below what supermarkets usually charge, they have drawn an encouraging response from ‘‘It’s the opposite of what we did before. We are not farming for production, we are farming for a good quality milk.’’ Karen Trafford customers struggling to find affordable cuts. ‘‘It’s been all word of mouth. We haven’t advertised.’’ Ms Trafford passionately believes that the better animals are fed and treated, the healthier and more wholesome their products will be.
She hopes her homegrown, uncomplicated approach strikes a chord among people interested in knowing how their food has been grown and what has gone into it. The same concepts are being applied to their cheesemaking, which stemmed from the enthusiastic feedback she got when asked to supply raw milk for a cheese course several years ago.
Her 25 jersey shorthorns, divided into summer and winter herds to give them a break, are milked just once day on 20ha and often keep their calves for up to five weeks. As well as being more relaxed, they produce a higher protein, creamy milk ideal for cheesemaking. Whereas a Fonterra herd might produce 1kg of cheese from 10 litres of milk, her cows produce 2kg. ‘‘It’s the opposite of what we did before. We are not farming for production, we are farming for a good quality milk.’’ In a bid to further improve it, they plan to mate their pure texas longhorn bulls with some heifers. She doesn’t use urea or nitrogen, relying instead on organic fertilisers to boost pastures that have been planted in a mix of grasses and herbage, including chicory, alfalfa and lucerne, to make them nutrient-rich. ‘‘We’re not looking at a straight paddock of ryegrass; it’s like a salad smorgasbord.’’ Animals are treated with homoeopathic remedies – some- thing she has always done – and she is investigating making her own natural drenches.
Getting the cheesery, which operates out of a converted 104-year-old cottage, operating has been time-consuming and costly. Despite its tiny size, the risk management rules are the same as for large factories, with numerous and regular audits and batch testing. ‘‘As a dairy farm you had one audit a year. Now we have six.’’ There are separate checks of their cowshed, pasteuriser and commercial kitchen, which so far has cost more than $12,000. If it wasn’t for the farm, Ms Trafford said she would have thought twice about taking on such a project as most artisan cheesemakers she knew barely drew a wage. It will take another month of testing before Wangapeka is cleared to begin selling direct to the public and at the market, although that hasn’t stopped restaurants and delicatessens ringing up.
In the meantime, she and her two staff have been busy making an array of cheeses and dairy products, including Greek yoghurt, cultured butter, ghee, A simpler way: Karen Trafford in the five-bay milking shed that Wangapeka Cheese uses to milk its cows. It replaces a 50-bay rotary milking shed. double cream and clotted cream. Some, such as the yoghurt, are made the traditional way of being hung in a cloth to remove the whey. As well as feta, camembert and brie, they are also making mozzarella, which Ms Trafford learnt from 82-year-old Nelson Italian woman Maria Romano.
Other skills she picked up from local cheesemakers, and she is quick to pay tribute to her mentor, Mapua Country Trading owner Heather Cole. While these products will provide cashflow, excess milk is being used to produce hard cheeses and Wangapeka hopes to release its own parmesan in a year or two. Although full of ideas for further growth, Ms Trafford isn’t getting too far ahead of herself. Their daily milk production of 300 litres is just a drop compared to what they used to pump out of their 50-bay rotary shed and that’s the way it will stay until it proves itself one way or another, she said. ‘‘Rather than spending thousands upon thousands starting up a business, we are better to take little steps. It’s got to be sustainable.’’ It was a ‘‘little template’’ which they could expand. ‘‘If it works well, then in five years the farm could be milking 300 cows using the same concept. One day it would it would be lovely to be farming this whole farm for the domestic market.’’
THE NELSON MAIL Tuesday, July 12, 2011