After establishing a leading craft beer operation, Dave and Sue Barrett went into the sheep cheese business. Anne Hardie reports.

It took six years for Dave and Sue Barrett’s sheep milk cheese business to break even, but persistence has led to national awards and singer, Lorde, has been singing the praises of their soft cheese called Devotion.

It’s been a battle, Dave acknowledges, educating the New Zealand public about sheep cheese and many assume it is from goats and grapple with the idea of cheese from sheep – even though it has been

around for centuries overseas. Due to that, they also create cheeses and dairy products from cows’ milk which are easily marketed and make up 75% of the business.

When the couple bought a former sheep milking dairy at Neudorf near Nelson, they were planning to use it to expand their existing business manufacturing vegan products. Then the owner of the sheep that had supplied the former dairy with milk convinced them to make sheep cheeses and they veered from vegan to dairy.

As it happened, Dave has cheesemaking in his blood. His father was a cheesemaker in Denmark and it is his middle name, Thorvald, that became the brand for the sheep milk cheese, while Little River is the brand for the cows’ milk cheese. But Dave had no such cheesemaking skills himself and the dairy had no equipment from the previous business.

‘If we’d gone in with no money, we wouldn’t be here.
We lost plenty. But I knew there was a market for
sheep milk products. It’s how you are going to get to the
market though – getting customers to try it and buy it.’

Brand new equipment imported from Sweden was installed – “a massive gamble” – and the business relies on a team of 13 people including a French cheesemaker to create today’s range. Dave and Sue have an extensive background in building successful brands, but sheep’s milk cheese has been the greatest challenge.

They previously teamed up with a craft beer brewer – before the success of craft beer – to establish a Kiwi bar within the community.

The result was the Sprig & Fern brand which they used to create several bars around the Top of the South and then licensed around the country. By the time they sold their share of the business, there were about 13 Sprig & Fern pubs.

Today they also own the Kahurangi Estate Winery which buys grapes from various growers, uses winemakers to make the wine and then markets the end product. Along the way they owned Soyworks which manufactured vegan foods.

So they went into cheesemaking with varied business experience under their belts and Dave says they had money to put into the business which proved essential.

“If we’d gone in with no money, we wouldn’t be here. We lost plenty. But I knew there was a market for sheep milk products. It’s how you are going to get to the market though – getting customers to try it and buy it.”

At the same time, he says it is the unique characteristics of sheep’s milk that makes it marketable and it is higher in protein, calcium and minerals than other milk.

Several companies around the country make hard sheep cheese, but Dave and Sue concentrate mainly on soft cheeses which gives them a different product to market.

Initially they bought milk from the owner of the flock that had supplied the dairy in the past and still farmed beside it. But a couple of droughts in a row on the Moutere hills and the cost of feeding the flock to compensate for the lack of feed, plus lower milk production, proved just too hard for the flock’s owner and the business.

Today the business buys its sheep’s milk from Canterbury which is brought up in a tanker each week. At the same time they changed their sheep milk supply, they added cow’s milk products to the business because it was easier to source the milk and sell the products. They needed a point of difference with their cow’s milk, though, and that’s why they buy A2 fresh milk from Oakland’s Milk in Nelson.

The dairy runs a six-day-a-week operation, with two days dedicated to sheep milk products and four days to cows’ milk products. The combined operation processes about 8000 litres a week and they are now in expansion mode and planning to double that volume.

From the sheep’s milk they produce yoghurt as well as their range of soft cheeses including camembert, feta, blue,  washed rind, plus a hard cheese called curado. Devotion that appealed to Lorde’s taste buds is a semi-soft, washed rind French-style cheese. From cows’ milk they create yoghurt, kefir, cream cheese, sour cream, camembert, brie, two blues, washed rind and Swiss alpine.

“Cheese and dairy products are two different products and you’re probably better to do one or the other. Doing both is fraught with complications. But we started doing both and have developed markets so we keep with them.”

Much of their product is sold through their retail outlet, The Junction, which is akin to the old-fashioned community grocer that stocks staples such as fresh milk, bread, eggs and local produce.

The building was a former dairy factory producing cheese and butter and is part of a busy hub expanding on the edge of Richmond. They set up shop three years ago and it provides the ideal base to attract the busy foot traffic to their products.

For farmers contemplating a sheep milk business, Dave advises some serious thought about how you visualise the end result.

“If you want a few hundred sheep to make a bit of cheese on the side at the gate, that is completely different to being a standalone business paying staff and giving a return on investment. And find a market before you start.

“But I’m the last person to say don’t have a crack. Double your knowledge and double your money to what you think you will need because you will always spend a lot more than you think you will need.”

Though it took the six years for their business to break even, he says a lot of businesses starting from scratch face that challenge.

“The nature of business is you plough your heart and soul into it and even when it’s looking dire, you have to keep going.”

Interestingly, he thinks Covid-19 has probably helped business because people have got behind smaller local businesses.

Plus, many imported brands are not on the shelves and customers look at alternatives.

Going forward, he thinks there will probably be more opportunities for local products because freight costs to get product from overseas is so high and unlikely to come down in a hurry – if at all.

Eventually, they want to step into the export market with the milk products, but Dave says he is a big believer in getting their backyard sorted first.