Wangapeka Family Dairy

Dairy Exporter

Dairy Exporter - Wangapeka Family Dairy

For more than two decades Daryl and Karen Trafford milked cows until they could afford to fulfil a dream to farm sheep and beef. Now they’re milking a small herd again on an organic platform of their Nelson farm to produce a range of dairy products that encompasses cheeses, yoghurt, butter and good old-fashioned double cream.

They’d climbed their way up the dairy ladder, sharemilking near Opotiki before joining the southern migration to sharemilk larger herds, settling in Canterbury to milk 1000 cows for Tasman Agriculture. When that farm was put on the market, it pushed them to make the next step into farm ownership.

That was 11 years ago when farm prices rocketed and any farm in Canterbury with water was out of their price range. So they looked outside the square and jumped on a small plane to check out a farm in the remote hinterland of Nelson. Tucked away in the Wangapeka valley, an hour’s drive west of Nelson against the Kahurangi National Park was a 971ha block of land that immediately appealed.

A wide river plain spreads over 240ha and rises to another terrace before the land climbs steeply up the foothills of the mountain range beyond. Regenerating bush covers about 400ha along the tops and is now set aside for carbon credits with a commission-based manager appointed to oversee the “minefield” of this latest industry.

They’d bought their dream farm, but sheep and beef couldn’t support their mortgage, so they converted the flats into dairying, installing a 50-bail rotary to milk 600 cows.

It wasn’t the easiest time to convert to dairying, with payout around $4 a kilogram. Buying shares cost them more than they were earning from the payout for three years but it was still the best option to get them ahead.

For eight years they milked cows on the farm until the big spike in payout lifted cow prices to make it financially possible for them to replace the cows with sheep and beef. The rotary that they had cost them $370,000 was sold for $220,000 to a dairy operation further south and the concrete yard was turned into cattle yards for the bull beef operation that took over the river flats.

“Dairy farming was good to us,” reflects Daryl. “We couldn’t have owned this farm if it hadn’t been for dairying and wouldn’t be farming sheep and beef here now.”

Today they run 1850 breeding ewes, 700 hoggets and about 660 cattle that are mainly Friesian bulls ranging from calves through to two-year-olds that are sold on contract through CMP.

Then two years ago, Karen mooted the idea of running a small herd of dairy cows again to produce a range of dairy products on the farm. She admits she had a bit of a battle on her hands to take over some of the best paddocks.

“I’ve always been really passionate about organic farming and always farmed holistically with dairy farming,” explains Karen. “Then I became involved with cheese courses and it spiralled from there.”

It began with a few cows to produce wholesome products for their own use and following a regime that stepped back 50 years to a time when every cow had a name and each one was in top health.

“It’s a whole different concept to when you’re milking for a big corporate. We’re not production driven; we’re quality driven.”

She’s now milking about 25 cows at any one time, within a herd of 80, enabling her to milk throughout the year and spell cows for about four months before calving. The first calves arrive in March and it continues through to late spring, with nurse cows taking on many of the calves and the remainder sharemilked on the cows.

Cows are just milked once a day through the new five-cow dairy, with milk heading into a petite vat before being transported down the road to the converted commercial kitchen in a 100-plus-year-old farm cottage.

It’s here that experimentation has produced an ever-increasing range of dairy products under the name of Wangapeka Downs, with more products on the list when time and milk allows down the track. So far, with assistance from family and a local employee, Karen has created feta, camembert and brie, Cheshire, mozzarella, haloumi and parmesan in the cheese line, plus double cream, a thick Greek-style yoghurt, butter and its clarified form, ghee, as well as buttermilk.

Everything is as pure and simple as possible, with the only ingredients in the yoghurt being milk and enzymes that is then strained through muslin to remove the whey and leave it thick and creamy. Butter is solely full cream, while the double cream is just that – thick, heavy cream to be scooped out of a tub rather than poured.

The only thing she regrets having to do to the products is pasteurise the milk which kills off the good bugs as well as the baddies, but it is a requirement for all milk products sold within New Zealand.

Food and safety is crucial with milk products though and early on, Karen enlisted Christchurch consultant, Rod Finch, to write the necessary documents to govern the dairy and commercial kitchen. Compared with the one audit a year for a farm dairy, Karen faces up to six audits a year that add up to about $10,000.

Though still establishing itself as a business, Wangapeka Downs has already enjoyed success when it was runner-up in the dairy section of this year’s Farmers’ Market Taste Awards.

Most of the interest for her dairy products has been via word of mouth and part of that she attributes to Nelson’s environmentally-aware community who want wholesome, local products and want to know its origins.

“They like to know how you treat your cows and so it’s generated an interest in a tiny niche market.

“The global market doesn’t dictate to me – it’s building a market within our own community.”

Selling organic produce from the farm extends beyond dairy products, with about five percent of their lambs farmed on another organic platform and slaughtered at Harris Meats in Cheviot. The carcases are returned in their various cuts to be sold locally.

“Eventually we’d like to be all organic for the domestic market but you have to be (financially) sustainable on the way.”

The organic platform for the dairy and lambs was only established two years ago and the cows have come from conventional herds, so Karen expects the herd to become easier to farm organically as they select from progeny born on the farm.

Likewise, the paddocks with their mix of chicory and herbs in the pasture, as well as the microbial ingredient in the organic fertiliser to encourage worms, are still evolving.

“You’re giving something and getting something. Giving back to the land and animal welfare while getting more nutritional value and flavour in the end product to give to the consumer.”

Dairy Exporter Article : August 2011