Milking a gap in the health market
With their farm lying in the picturesque Gabhra Valley, between the hills of Tara and Skryne in Co Meath, Dominic and Fionnuala Gryson could hardly find a more suitable place to develop their unique style of 'heritage farming'.
In recent years, the pair have moved away from commodity-based farming of beef, grain and potatoes towards smaller and more traditional enterprises such as the production of thatching straw and, in the past two years, goats' milk.
"I feel that the future for smaller farms is to be closer to our customers," says Dominic. "So that is how we operate here at Gleann Gabhra."
Running a herd of 140 dairy goats that yield 900-1,000 litres of milk a year each, the milk is processed in the Gryson's own plant on the farm for sale as drinking milk or production of yoghurt, cheese, ice cream and fudge.
Tara Bán, a mild cheddar made from the Gleann Gabhra goats' milk, won a gold medal at the British Cheese awards last year.
"It's what I would call an introduction to goats' cheese," says Dominic. "It's really mild with a cheddar texture that is ideal for someone who wants to try goats' cheese without taking a quantum leap."
Goats' milk is renowned for its health properties, which Dominic believes should be marketed much more aggressively in Ireland.
"The health benefits of goats' milk are totally underrated. There is a catalogue of health problems that can be improved by goats' milk," he insists.
"In America, goats' milk is a well-accepted treatment for geriatric patients because it is more easily digestible than cows' milk."
According to the farmer, Ireland has the highest rate of asthma in Europe and the fourth highest rate in the world. Some 470,000 people in Ireland have asthma, with up to 20pc of children suffering from it.
An increasing number of medical practitioners are prescribing goats' milk for children who suffer from asthma, eczema and for children unable to digest the fat in cows' milk. In addition, more people within the ethnic population have an intolerance to the lactose in cows' milk and are consequently consuming goats' milk.
"I could be selling sage-flavoured sausages and while they would taste nice, they would not help anyone breath easier, sleep better at night or get rid of a skin rash. Goats' milk does," Dominic says. "It is medicine without a prescription for some people."
Despite this, goats' milk has been losing out in recent years to soya milk in terms of shelf space in supermarkets.
"Goats' milk is an indigenous, positive product that we should be shouting about from the rooftops," he insists.
At Gleann Gabhra, sales are made in three ways: farm gate sales from the farm's Department of Agriculture-approved dairy, through local farmers' markets and by supplying local independent supermarkets and some SuperValu branches.
The milk is pasteurised to kill any bacteria but is not homogenised, which means the Gleann Gabhra milk will have the traditional collar of cream at the top that is no longer found in homogenised milk. A litre of Gryson farm goats' milk sells for €2.50-2.70/l in supermarkets.
However, the farmer warns that goat dairying is not an easy option as an alternative enterprise.
"To be viable as a goat farmer you need to reach a certain scale and you need to have a market for all your produce," he says.
"There are plenty of problems on goat farms at the moment."
Dominic and Fionnuala Gryson will be hosting a Macra na Feirme Farm Skills at their Gleann Gabhra Farm, near Tara, Co Meath, on May 29