MILK OF KINDNESS
A DREAM OF A WEEKEND GETAWAY HAS TURNED INTO A DAIRY BUSINESS THAT IS REAPING UNEXPECTED REWARDS.
In SA’S Hindmarsh Valley, farmer Denise Riches passionately loves her life and dairy goats.
FEW PLACES ARE as idyllic for a weekend than among the picturesque hills of the Hindmarsh Valley, just 10 minutes from Port Elliot on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula. The region has, after all, long been the favoured playground of Adelaide folk. So thought Denise Riches, too, back in 2000, when she and her partner, James Keirnan, flew their light aircraft over a 40-hectare area, thinking it would be just the spot to chill out from their busy city lives. “We were looking for the ‘mythical’ four-hectare holiday block and had looked all over South Australia by flying over and looking at the topography,” Denise says. “We saw this beautifully laid-out block with lots of trees.” Today, they operate the award-winning Hindmarsh Valley Dairy, running 1200 dairy goats, milking up to 350 of them and making cheese seven days a week, on the land that has since grown to total 80 hectares. Denise works seven days with the goats, while James works off the farm in a “normal” job and helps on the weekends. A microbiologist and mechanical engineer by training, Denise is originally from New Zealand. She was on a corporate secondment in Adelaide in the mid-90s when she met James, an electrical engineer with a background in the RAAF. Both Denise and James are recreational pilots, and when they first saw the Hindmarsh Valley block from the air, it seemed like their promised land. When they discovered they could buy 40 hectares for the same price as four, “it became a question of what to do with all that land? So we got a few alpacas, and then bought some angora goats for weed control. We started with 30 and then got seriously into mohair production. At one time, we were producing 30 per cent of the state’s mohair with 1000 goats… So we bought an additional 40 hectares.” Then someone happened to give Denise some dairy goat kids. “I was already playing around with cheesemaking at home, and by the end of the year was producing something edible.” Denise had been travelling back and forth from Adelaide, but eventually, the couple moved to the Hindmarsh Valley and she went full time into dairying. They started building their herd and now breed a mix of Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpines “to get vigour”. Denise has Swiss heritage and has family in Switzerland who are involved in cheesemaking. Nevertheless, goat farming and cheese-making has been a huge learning process. “There have been lots of challenges: developing recipes specific to us; and that, while milk is seasonal, the expectation of the market is that milk is year-round, so we’ve been staggering the herd. And then there are the seasons when we’re not able to cut hay,” she says. Today, they hand-make a range of European-style cheeses and dairy products, from yoghurt, haloumi, feta, kefir, chevre and curds, to bottled milk, and are the only farm-based cheesemaker currently licensed for raw-milk cheese production — a Swiss-style Emme — and bottled raw milk. “We make the cheese while the milk is still warm because goat milk is very fragile; if you keep it for an extended period or put it through pumps, it gets a gamey flavour,” Denise explains. “We ladle it into the vats by hand to get the cleanest flavours.” They also make a small range of cow products with milk from a nearby dairy, including quark, creme frâiche and cultured butter. The farm and dairy are run sustainably and on organic principles: “We don’t like nasty chemicals. The idea of having goats in the first place was to do gentle weed control, and we’re also aware that our market with goat milk is a health market. Our philosophy fits with that.” Denise loves working with the goats. “They are very interactive and friendly, and relate well to people,” she says. “They come to you in the paddock. I always have favourites, and one is a girl called Boo who was born blind, but was raised with two lambs who are her ‘eyes’. Boo is an amazing animal who comes in for milking when I call her.” She also refuses to dehorn the goats; a practice she believes is cruel and deprives the animals of a form of defence. “We have foxes and occasionally wild dogs and wedge-tailed eagles that are quite happy to have goat for lunch.” When elderly goats retire from the milking shed, they live out their days in the “granny” paddock. “Some of my girls are 14 years old; sending them to the abattoir isn’t acceptable, so they stay here until they pass away.” James might have sold his plane long ago to pay for fencing, but the couple have no regrets about moving to the Hindmarsh Valley. “The Fleurieu is beautiful,” Denise says, though she admits there’s little time after milking, making cheese and running the farm to get out and about. However, she does manage to squeeze a bit of beauty therapy in. For the goats, that is. “I’m trimming about 40 or 50 of the girls’ nails today, and they enjoy it - as long as there's a bribe attached!"