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Goats were not the plan when the people behind St Tola Cheese began their careers as teachers



Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith, of St Tola Goat cheese farm, Maurice Mills, Inagh, Clare.

Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith, of St Tola Goat cheese farm, Maurice Mills, Inagh, Clare.

Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith, of St Tola Goat cheese farm, Maurice Mills, Inagh, Clare.

Siobhán Ní Ghairbhith is at the forefront of a growing band of artisan cheese-makers who are increasing the sector's market share by adding value to their milk - or in Siobhán's case, to goat's milk produced on her farm in the Burren, Co Clare.

Siobhán is busy building up her St Tola goat's cheese brand, on land leased from her parents, with the help of her partner John Harrington - though that was not the plan when they both began their careers as teachers in the west back in the '90s.

"I wanted to go back to the farm and, with John's help, planned the goat's cheese enterprise," says Siobhán.

"When we were up and running we started producing the goat's cheese and sold it to local restaurants and hotels, but now it is also sold in cheese-mongers and the supermarkets."

When the couple took the plunge, they were producing some five tonnes of the cheese from their herd of around 300 goats - Saanen, British Alpines and some Toggenburgs - on the home farm of 70 acres outside Inagh on the road to Ennistymon.

Today, production has increased to 35 tonnes and is growing.

"We buy in goat's milk now from local farmers to meet our order-book demand and have our own pasteurising plant," says Siobhán. "The home milk is mainly used to make our cheese for the specialist restaurant markets, with most of the bought-in milk going to make our goat's cheese logs for the supermarkets.

"When we started off we didn't know how St Tola would go. When you would offer people a sample at the markets they would always say 'that's lovely', but when you told them it was goat's cheese they would say 'ooh'. It's different now, of course."

St Tola is thriving, with four people working in the cheese house, two on the farm and one - John - doing the sums and administration.

The enterprise is part of Irish Cheese Direct, which represents seven established independent artisan brands in Ireland and is, according to Siobhán, very useful when it comes to dealing and bartering with the retail multiples.

Commerce aside, Siobhán waxes lyrical about her goats, which she says have plenty of human traits.

"They have to be kept warm because they have thin skin and feel the cold, so they have spent a good deal of their time indoors this year," she says.

"And when we had the heatwave this year, we had to keep an eye on them because they can actually get sunburned."

Siobhán and John have two children - Caoilte (12), called after a fast runner who made his name in the days of Na Fianna, and Luisne (8), named after the mountain ash which dominates the local landscape.

The children attend the local Steiner school - which emphasises nature in all its forms as the preferred route to education.

Siobhán's interest in the Irish language is a given as she is a Clare woman, as is her interest in music, though she is not playing at public venues these days. "Who'd have me?" she laughs.

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