In six years since quitting nursing and returning home, Teresa Roche has
transformed her family farm in east Galway alongside her father Bertie, branching out in various directions and doubling the size of the pedigree herd
Diversification has breathed “a new lease of life” into Bertie Roche and his daughter Teresa’s pedigree dairy farm in easy Galway after 50 years of milking.
Over the last six years, they have added award-winning cheese production — whose clients include Ashford House and Neven Maguire — a farm shop and a farm tourism enterprise, as well as doubling their dairy herd to over 100 cows.
They also lifted the Judges’ Recognition Award at the recent IHFA Herd of the Year ceremony in Portlaoise.
Teresa, the inspiration behind the changes on the farm, says: “I was too busy at home, but it was a great thrill for Mam and Dad to get it — they were delighted.”
The farm is at Abbey, near Portumna, on a plain of good limestone land at the foothills of the Sliabh Aughty Mountains.
Teresa is a highly qualified intensive care nurse, who spent 14 years working in hospitals in the UK, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. She turned her back on her nursing career six years ago “to ensure the future of our family farm”.
“I came home for my annual holiday for two weeks,” says Teresa. “It was a busy time with calving, and I decided to give Mam and Dad a bit of help, and I am still here six years later.
“The milk price was low and after all of the hard work that goes into having a pedigree herd and producing grass for them, I felt we were not being rewarded for all of that was going into it, and I suggested that we should try doing something with the milk to add value by diversifying.
“We were milking for so many years it is possible to become complacent as to why you are at it, and there was a need to take back ownership of what we were producing and put some identity on to the farm.
“I felt that if we didn’t try and do something like diversifying some of the milk, we wouldn’t be farming in five years from then.
“I thought we were going down a slippery slope of tiredness and fatigue, burnout, with prices fluctuating.”
Teresa decided to leave nursing and over the following months considered options to grow the herd and diversify to supplement the enterprise.
“We started with one thing but we are now into a few different things that have given the farm a new lease of life,” she says.
She did a business start-up course, and mentoring on cheese production, at home and abroad.
And just over three years ago, the first batch of Kylemore Farm Cheese was manufactured in the purpose-designed unit in a converted former sheep shed on the farm.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever did, getting started in the business.
“It took us a year and a half to figure out a product, build a manufacturing plant ourselves — we had no skills and no expertise, so depended heavily on a great neighbour.
“It has been a very hard time to start a business, but I had good staff to help, and great neighbours. You can’t do it all on your own.”
Initially they sold to a lot of restaurants and hotels, and when the pandemic struck, they moved quickly and opened the farm shop.
“That became very relevant to survival because we had no output for our cheese,” says Teresa.
“We had lost up to 80pc of our clients overnight, with restaurants and hotels gone.
“The farm shop created a whole new customer base, and we have rural and city people travelling out to buy the cheese.
“They know the story and the traceability behind the product.
“I have continued to grow the business, introducing farm tours and cheese experiences.
“We work with Ashford Castle, bringing some of their high-end guests here, and I work on education with schools and universities and the culinary universities and catering groups
“It is very important to engage with the schools, and showcase to the local people what we do.
“A big part of the story is showing them the cows, milk, and all the process of the milking parlour step by step and then bringing them into the cheese house, then cheese tasting at the end.
“My parents are very much involved and very helpful. This has all re-energised our farm. My father likes the social engagement and there is a real sense of pride back in the farm.”
All the while, the Roches have been expanding improving their herd. They now have 105 high-yielding cows, with more than a quarter of them classified as VG and EX.
Production is averaging over 9,000L at 3.49pc butterfat and 3.51pc protein.
“We are holding the good cows and breeding from them. We used bulls from the Reary herd and the Monamore herd as well trying to get the best that is out there in AI,” says Bertie, a founder member of the Galway Friesian Breeders Club.
Teresa adds: “My grandmother was the one that got the cows in here. They had six pedigree cows in 1962 being hand-milked and generationally cows have been kept through the years since.
A new milking parlour was built in 1982 for the herd of 30 cows, with a view to further expansion in the years ahead.
“I had a plan to go to 50 cows, which at that time here in the west of Ireland was a big herd, and not many of them around,” says Bertie. “You’d nearly think that you were made for life.”
The introduction of the milk quota in 1984 was a severe blow to the plan.
“We were restricted to a small quota. I bought some as it went along, but it was hard to get it, and we continued to add to the herd slowly. I found it very difficult to get more milk quota, being west of the Shannon,” says Bertie.
“We had to go into sheep when the milk quota came and some tillage and fattening cattle to try and stay in business, including renting some land.
“I have been milking cows for 50 years and have seen a lot of changes.”
In 1985 the Kilmora pedigree Holstein Friesian herd was registered.
By 2014-15, it had been increased to more than 50 cows, breeding replacements from within the herd and establishing good cow families.
As the cap on expansion of the dairy herd was lifted, 2015 was a turning point for the farm in more ways than one as Teresa returned and diversification began.
Teresa took inspiration from near and afar when she set up Kylemore Farm Cheese.
When working as a nurse in New Zealand, she was impressed by food-based businesses among the Maori community in Waikato.
For 20 years, the Roches had supplied milk to neighbour Marion Roeleveld for her award-winning Killeen Farmhouse Cheese, and a short spell of work experience with her convinced Teresa to branch out.
Following a course in cheese-making in the UK, she travelled to Switzerland to further her study of the craft.
“I made contact with a cheese-maker there who took me under their wing and they kindly supported me to develop the skills and techniques,” she says.
“I stuck with making the Swiss Mountain Cheeses because I felt that it was relevant to the area where I lived, drawing the comparison with the Alps and the Sliabh Aughty Mountains around us.”
Kylemore Farm Cheese is a hand-crafted, washed-rind cheese, matured for at least five months to enhance the flavour and texture.
“The health science of my background was very beneficial, to understand the hygiene that is required for cheese-making and also the chemistry around it,” Teresa says.
“The quality of the cheese would fluctuate a lot if you are not getting it right.”
About 10pc of the production of the Roches’ herd, between April and October, is diverted to cheese production, while they continue to supply the balance to Arrabawn Co-op at Nenagh.
Finance for the development was largely provided from farm livestock sales.
The Roches got a small grant from Local Enterprise Galway in the early stages of their cheese production, and they have recently been approved for a modest LEADER grant for upgrading of equipment.