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Partners in a Value Added Product. Cheese to Infinity...........

Lyn Johnson

Tarago Cheese, Warragul

Cheese is such a simple food and easy to make! Simply take a few litres of goats, yaks, buffalo, sheep or cows milk, add a dash of starter and culture, heat and leave to mature, preferably in a cellar or cave.

That is the simple romantic view of how to make cheese BUT there is a huge gap to be bridged in understanding the process and effort that goes into making and marketing a piece of farmhouse cheese like this - (Lyn held up a quarter wedge of cheese) - our Tarago River Cheese Company's 'Blue Orchid' cheese, named after the "Sun Veined Blue Orchid" that grows in the local alpine region in the Great Dividing Range that our farm looks out to.

The long journey of this 'Blue Orchid' cheese begins with healthy soil, quality pasture, a temperate climate, a healthy herd of cows producing quality milk every day of the year, people and good marketing.

However I must start my journey by going back some 34 years - a life time ago. A delight of my early working life in Melbourne, BBF (before becoming a farmer) was going to the Myer Food Department to buy a round of Norwegian Smoked cheese. It tasted like caramel, had a brown waxed rind and was the one cheap imported cheese I could afford. Were there Australian cheeses displayed for sale at the time? I don't know, I was more intrigued by the cheese from Norway. It seemed so far for a little brown cheese to come.

Now when I come to the City (Melbourne) checking on our product at Myer, David Jones, the Victoria Market and delicatessens is mandatory. Occasionally we get to do a taste check at good restaurants. You wont' find our products in the super markets. We are 'price makers' not 'price takers'

Today's public appreciates the variety and quality of home grown Australian cheese. These wonderful cheeses in many cases, are import replacements thus helping our balance of trade.

I thought my qualifications for becoming a dairyfarmer were rather good when I married my husband Rob. I had a stamp collection, had worked and lived overseas for 2 years, knew what Nassie Goring was and could make a mean spaghetti bolognese. I had A$24 in the bank, a portable typewriter and could chop wood.

Above all I was very clever at disguising the fact that I was terrified of the cows (they were soooooo BIG), could not drive a tractor, had never seen a calf born and was surprised to learn that grass didn't grow in winter! But I always wanted to live the farming life and loved the countryside. Gradually with patience and optimism from Rob we bridged the gaps (and mud) and became a good team working our farm enterprise.

After 6 years of planning we led a dairyfarmers tour to the USA and Canada in 1978. A light went on when we visited a 1500 (3000 teats) goat herd in California. Here the owner was harvesting the milk, packaging the raw unpasteurised goats milk and selling it direct to the public. Customers came from near and far to buy 'Laurel Acres' milk. The producer was in control of that product from whoa to go. He only needed to buy in the milk cartons. A brilliant idea we thought. We would not be at the mercy of the milk companies, we would be 'price makers' not 'price takers' Disillusionment on returning home as we found regulations forbade the process of selling milk direct to the public. End of idea? Well not quite. We tucked it away for future reference.

In 1980 we again organized and led a further study tour this time to UK & Europe.

The light really switched on in Holland when we visited a family owned dairyfarm where the farm family were milking cows and goats, making the cheese on their farm and selling it direct to the locals and passing tourists. Wow! That's the way to go we thought! Cheese! Direct to the consumer. We couldn't wait to get back home. But how to do this in Australia?

Bridges are made for crossing over, for going from one place to another, for spanning barriers and sometimes for burning. We found a partner who had the cheese technology and commitment we had to start the cheese enterprise on our farm "Hillcrest" at Neerim South (West Gippsland, Victoria).

So here we are nearly 20 years later producing quality Australian cheeses that were awarded 2 gold medals and our Blur Orchid cheese was voted the "peoples' choice at the recent Australian Specialist Cheesemakers Association Awards held in Melbourne.

Milk comes from our two farms where a staff of 5 manage the 600 Friesian cow herd that are milked in rotary dairies. We have a turnover of A$2.5, produce 220 tonnes of cheese per year, employ 20 full-time and 10 part-time staff with a gender blend of 50/50. Of the 16 varieties of cheese we produce six are of the blue mould type, four of the white mould type (Brie, camembert etc.), a washed rind cheese, a lavender cheese and two mature types. Four types are made from goats milk.

The cheese is sold throughout Australia with 5% going to Japan and SE Asia mainly for the restaurant trade. Our export licence initially cost A$60.000 and to maintain the standards of testing and quality control cost around A$40.000 per year.

We monitor every step of the process from grass to cheese. From soil structure, water quality, to transporting and distributing the cheese to checking on our product in the stores and surveying customer and consumer reaction to the products.

We deal with at least 5 Government and regulatory bodies or entities:

  • Dairy Food Safety Victoria which includes - labelling, quality control systems, food handling and packaging.
  • The Department of State & Regional Development.
  • Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service (AQIS)
  • Environment Protection Authority. (We are working on a small methane gas project using a combination of whey and cow manure and eventually hope to use the gas to provide heating for pasteurization and other applications in our factory)
  • Work Cover - includes Occupational Health & Safety.
  • The Local Shire Council has its rules and regulations also.
  • The Country Fire Authority who at our request does an audit every 6 months.
  • We are HACCP Accredited (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) which is audited by Dairy Food Safety Victoria.

It all makes for lots of paper work, is costly but has to be adhered to and in the long run is worth it all to ensure our product is first class.

Earlier in the year, 28 staff and employees from Tarago River Cheese Co completed their Level II Dairy Food Production qualifications. This entailed some 400 hours of training and study by each participant with the Gilbert Chandler Institute - Melbourne University. Presently 11 employees and staff are studying for their Level III qualifications. This is quite an achievement for a small on-farm cheese company like ours.

Yes there have been hard times - like fighting poorly constructed legislation that was only blocked by forming the Speciality Cheesemakers Association and fighting for our very existence. We lobbied the then Minister for Agriculture, Evan Walker who after some persuasion saw the error of the intended legislation, had it reviewed, in consultation with our group and only then did it go forward. A HUGE victory for our small group and so we survived. Bridging the gaps between farmers and Government has progressed somewhat since then.

Today it is pleasing to know that AWIA members have the opportunity to undertake leadership courses and training that give them the tools and skills to lobby and speak for agriculture in all its diversity. Members should make the most of these opportunites.

Through special promotions, store tastings and markets we have the opportunity to present our cheese to the consumer. We gain immediate feed back and build customer loyalty. We bring chefs from city hotels and restaurants to the factory, give them a tour of the farm so they get a glimpse of where the process starts from - in the paddock! Stephanie Alexander, Jacques Reymond and mentors like Will Studd, you may hear him on the radio from time to time, or have read his book "Chalk to Cheese" have helped us in bridging the gaps between distributor, restauranteur and retailer.

We built a cheese tasting and retail area at the factory and were part of the original Gourmet Deli Trail in West Gippsland (Victoria) We no longer have our retail outlet open but have all our cheeses available at several local outlets. Tastings at field days, the Royal Melbourne Show, wineries and markets all play a part in spawning understanding and knowledge about our product between consumer and producer.

Over the years we have visited just about every known on-farm blue cheese factory and farm in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the USA. If you though that Maytag only made washing machines you would be wrong. They also make a mean blue cheese-on-farm at Newton, Iowa, USA.


Researching your market is essential. We knew there was a niche market for blue cheese so we could confidently go ahead with our enterprise. You may have what you think is the greatst product on earth but if you don't have a market for it - stiff cheddar as the saying goes.

Our cheese enterprise has brought us into contact with many aspects of agriculture that have helped in bridging the gaps between city/county, between industries; between understanding and knowledge and between cultures. the transition from dairyfarmers to cheese manufacturers has been quite a trip through making and marketing cheese, employing people to succession planning.

Life has a habit of throwing up the unexpected and that happened 15 years ago when my busband Rob, aged 45 was diagnosed with *CMT, not a life threatening disease but a debilitating one. So we set ourselves the goal of retiring from farming and cheese manufacturing in the year 2000. Over the past two years we have worked through the transition of relinquishing our ownership and interest in the company and farm.

The Dairy Business Focus Group Course helped us to focus on the end result so we convened a meeting in our kitchen with our partner and his wife, our son and daughter-in-law together with a Mediator present. This gave us all the opportunity to participate in the discussion as the Mediator, who was not emotionally involved with the process took notes, made a few comments then invited each person present to have their say. It was worthwhile and opened the way for future direction, discussion and decision making. Later we engaged legal counsel with expertise in company and tax law who drew up the myriad documents required for such a relinquishment. I know that Ann Jarvis is here today and I remember well a session Ann conducted at Numurkah regarding Estate and Succession planning. A point Ann emphasized was "start now, it takes longer than you think" It has taken all of two years to accomplish our goals as our business was very complex.

As a Woman in Agriculture who was first a city girl then became a dairyfarmer then a cheese manufacturer I could talk for hours and share with you something about the American Agri-Women I met in 1978 and the enduring friendships we have; or the Women of the Outback I visited this past July or how the farm women in Devon, UK have coped with losing all their sheep to Foot & Mouth disease or what it is like to have a daughter living and farming in the USA and the animated discussion I have with my son-in-law over farm subsidies; or how we are pleased that our son and daughter-in-law made a considered decision to bridge the gaps from one generation to another.

But time precludes that although the title of this presentation is "Cheese to Infinity" so I will leave you with these two profound and sincinct thoughts

The best way to forget all your troubles is to wear tight shoes.

and finally

Age is only important if you are cheese.

* CMT = Charcot-Marie-Tooth neuropathy also known as "peroneal muscular atrophy" Once regarded as rare CMT is now known to be one of the commonest human hereditary disorders

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