“The whole idea of sheep milk cheese was our biggest hurdle.”
But before they could get anything underway, they sat down to have a read through the very imposing rule book on cheese manufacturing in NZ.
“There were about 500 pages of Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) regulations to go through, and the cost structure was all set up for big companies,” says Kirsty. “It was a mountain of material to read through but I knew that if I didn’t do it then it would never get done, so I just got on with it.”
While Kirsty tackled the paperwork (see page 23 for more), Dave was busy designing and building what is now their Mark 1 milking platform, and converting an old stable into a modern cheesemaking room that met the strict standards and regulations.
It was 2015 by the time they finally conquered the paperwork, wrote up their Risk Management Plan, and could begin making cheese to sell.
“In our first season, two-thirds of the cheese I made, we gave away,” says Kirsty. “But we realised our idea was workable, so we decided to buy some Poll Dorset ewes and some East Friesian rams to build up our milking flock.”
The couple now sell their cheeses online, at the local farmer’s market, and through a few cheese stores (see page 24).
When Kirsty is not busy making cheese, she runs workshops teaching others how to do it. The courses, which she tries to run once a month, have proven popular and fill up fast.
“One course, we did a farmhouse-type cheese… and one of the husband and wife teams, when they got home they lovingly washed it in whiskey, I don’t know for how long, so I’m waiting to get an invite to taste that. I saw it a couple of weeks later and it smelt absolutely beautiful. It’s quite fun to play round like that.”
Wild Bush Cheese has now expandeded to keep up with demand. As sales grew, Kirsty and Dave realised they needed more land and a larger milking shed. In 2016 they purchased another block not far from where they live. It has increased their grazing land to 7ha in total, and given them room to build a much-needed Mark 2 milking shed.
“We kept the cheese factory here, but we do our milking at our new site which is a lot bigger,” says Kirsty.
Their farm is small by local standards, where a typical property has thousands of stock, but the community has been very supportive.
“Just the whole idea of sheep milk cheese was our biggest hurdle,” says Kirsty. “In places like Dannevirke, people that have farmed sheep and beef for years, they don’t drink sheep milk and they don’t want to eat sheep milk cheese. The older farmers, the men, are the hardest to sell to, so that was our biggest thing when we first started.
“But now, people say ‘oh! Sheep milk, yes, I want to try that!’
“I think we were at exactly the right time when the tide was changing. I’ve kept our range very minimal, I only do feta, halloumi and the pecorino and that’s enough. People wonder why we do feta, but it sells because people like it.
“To be honest, it’s the most simple cheese for me to do too – it’s kind-of my bread and butter cheese.”
Top: Sheep milk has more fat and protein than cow’s milk, perfect for cheesemakers like Kirsty. This is her traditional feta, flavoured with chilli flakes. Above: The cheeses are vacuum-packed for easy storage and ageing.