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Independent.ie

Friday 9 December 2016

Building a 'cathedral of cheese'

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Ralph Haslam walks the land on the family’s 240ac holding near Birr, Co Offaly.
Ralph Haslam walks the land on the family’s 240ac holding near Birr, Co Offaly.

Going organic has been a rollercoaster ride for Ralph Haslam who made the switch from conventional dairy farming to organic in 2000 and then took the leap into producing organic cheeses, yoghurts and bottled milk as the recession struck in 2009.

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"It was hard at times but I have no regrets," he said last week as he collected yet another award for his Mossfield cheese brand at the Irish Food Writers Guild Awards in Dublin.

Earlier this year the Haslams carried off another prestigious prize at the Randwick cheese festival in Britain from what Ralph likes to describe as the family's "cathedral of cheese", on the 240ac family farm outside Birr.

The Haslams have been farming in Offaly since the 1940s when Ralph's father produced cattle for the Dublin Mart. They persisted with beef until the nineties when they converted to dairy and then went organic in 2000 and up-skilled to cheese production in 2009.

Ralph is a passionate supporter of the organic sector and sees the future for Irish farmers in niche rather than mass market commodity production.

"We should be producing niche agricultural products with a higher domestic and export value than being commodity producers. This is what the market wants, especially in beef where the Irish organic beef product produced on grass is of the highest quality in the world," he says.

In the dairy sector for instance Ralph predicts that the milk price will drop to 19c/l and will stay there for a considerable time because of volatility in the international markets, especially China, for 'our white gold'.

He also points out that the increasing emphasis internationally on non-GM agricultural produce will have consequences for our commodity driven agriculture.

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"The Germans are testing Irish butter for GM traces you have to remember and in the US they are looking for traces of GM grain in beef," he says.

Thus ends Ralph's case for a switch from conventional commodity based agriculture to organics.

However, he advises farmers thinking of converting to remember that organic farming is not a piece of cake.

"Converting to organic farming is not simply a matter of closing the gate and allowing everything to grow wild. It lowers costs and carries an allowance which are their own rewards but it is a disciplined type of farming," Ralph explains.

"You need a proper plan and a real market for your produce. Anyone entering the organic market should also take a long term view but when they establish their market they should go for it.

"And if they are dairy farmers they need to be near a co-op which deals with organic milk for a start," he adds.

And then there are the headaches of dealing with officialdom and the banks, he warns.

When the Haslams converted to a dairy enterprise at the turn of the century with a 100 plus British Friesian herd they were hit by milk quotas and then by quota buying on high interest bank loans.

"It was hard," says Ralph, who has very little respect for our banking system.

When the farm went organic the milk price improved mainly because his processor Arrabawn dealt in organic milk and when the cheese enterprise was proposed at a cost of €1.5m - with some €300,000 in enterprise aid - in 2009, the banks went bust.

"Don't talk to me about the banks. I have been dealing with them all my life and I just don't want to talk about them," says Ralph with the impatient air of a man who will not be crediting the banks in any of his acceptance speeches.

"They have been bailed out and it's is time they started investing back into the community," is all he will say.

The Haslams are taking "an easy as you go" attitude to the Mossfield brand and have no immediate plans to expand the herd to meet any anticipated foreign or domestic demand for their products.

"Sometimes when you expand you only end up discounting against yourself," he says.

The strategy for now will see 35 tonnes of Moorefield cheese being produced from 350,000 litres of milk from the Haslams Friesian Robunt herd, with a further 110,000 litres of milk going to a milk bottling line, and an additional 50,000 litres allocated to the yoghurt enterprise.

Half of the cheeses are exported to markets in the US,, Europe and Dubai: "Our British distributor provides the cheeses for Buckingham Palace but I don't know if the Queen has tasted Mossfield," Ralph says, while the bottled milk and yoghurts are mainly on the home market with about 30pc exported.

It creates more than enough work to keep the Haslams and their two cheesemakers busy year round, not forgetting the two staff in the office, the assistant up on the farm plus the dairy science student assigned annually to Mossfield on a university placement.

* Other winners at the Irish Food Writers Guild Awards included: Silver Darlings from Co Limerick; Wild Irish Foragers in Offaly; Tipperary's White Gypsy Russian Imperial Stout; Joe Fitzmaurice of Riot Rye and Highbank Organic Orchards in Co Kilkenny.

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