It’s 20 years since Dan Hegarty made his first cheddar on his family farm in Cork, and with his produce being distributed nationwide and his Swiss-style unpasteurised cheese scooping top awards, his diversification is paying off from both financial and lifestyle perspectives
Dan Hegarty is the fifth generation of his family to farm the 150ac holding outside Cork city, having taken it over from his parents Jimmy and Elizabeth in the late ’90s.
The farm has traditionally been a dairy enterprise and Dan is now using the liquid gold from his 150 Irish Friesians to make his award-winning produce.
Farming has always been a big part of life for Dan, who studied agriculture in both Rockwell Agricultural College and UCD before working in dairy research with Teagasc.
He says that in the late ’90s, there were a lot of farm protests because of milk prices, which helped persuade him to start his own business.
“Back then, milk prices weren’t what they are now, and I was trying to find a way to add value to what we did,” he says.
”I’d done some research and there was a lot of cheddar being imported into this country at that time, so I decided to give cheese-making a go as a means of making the farm more profitable.”
With his professional experience, Dan knew what he’d need to do to get his new business idea off the ground and in early 2001, he started building his factory.
“We were able to do most of the work ourselves,” he says. “My father is very handy and did a lot of the work — he even made the cheese press.
“I converted a bulk tank and we’ve been using this as our cheese vat for the cheddar since then.”
In September 2001, Dan tried his hand at making his first batch of Hegarty’s Cheddar.
“We started making the cheese using a traditional handmade method where the cheese is bound in cloth and left to mature for 12 months,” he says.
”It’s made using a 20kg wheel which is a foot high and a foot wide.”
The cheese quickly gained a space in the marketplace, with Dan supplying it to various farmers’ markets, cheesemongers and independent retailers, both locally and further afield.
Five years ago, he began producing Swiss cheese which involves a very different method of production.
“The only comparison this cheese has with our cheddar is that it’s made from milk — it’s completely different otherwise,” he says.
The equipment required to make it came from France.
“Our head cheese-maker Jean-Baptiste Enjelvin is French so he sourced the equipment that we needed and brought it over,” says Dan.
Named Templegall, after his home village, this Alpine-style cheese is made using unpasteurised milk from the morning milking, it is pumped straight from the cow into the vat.
“It hits the vat at around 30°C and the culture is added straight away. It’s a very different method to other cheeses,” says Dan.
He learned the hard way that rather than being made in a stainless-steel vat like his cheddar, this Swiss-style cheese must be made using a copper vat.
“Our first year making it was a disaster. We made it using the stainless-steel vat but it turned out completely wrong,” he says.
“We sourced the copper vat, which made a world of difference. It’s then made in a 40kg wheel and matured for 9-12 months.”
Dan operates a closed herd system and has to undergo frequent TB testing because he is using raw milk to make some of his cheese. His products also go through a lot of finished product testing.
Unlike most farmers, Dan can’t feed any silage to his animals while their milk is being used for his cheese production.
“The cows can’t even get a small of silage — if they do, the taste of the cheese is altered greatly,” he says.
“For this reason, they’re fed a 100pc grass diet while out on pasture. Our grassland management is quite different to most too because we don’t graze too tight.
”If the cows were to pick up a bit of soil or dirt, it would affect the quality of the cheese.”
During the transition period to indoors, Dan feeds his cows zero graze grass instead of silage.
He also milks 365 days of the year and operates a split calving system. He still sends some of his milk to the co-op as liquid milk too.
“We need a flatter protein content in our milk. If it’s too high, it’s not good for cheese-making and if it’s too low, it can’t be used for cheese-making at all, so it’s a balancing act,” he says.
“It’s all a learning process and we’ve had plenty of ups and downs to get to where we are today.”
Dan says Ireland has become a new frontier for cheese production and that we’re fortunate we have so few limits on what we can do with our milk.
“In other countries, such as France, your location determines the type of product you can make,” he says.
“That’s how they protect their milk price. Here, however, we aren’t pigeon-holed into what we can do with our milk and Ireland has come up with some great and unique cheeses over the last few years.”
As with most businesses, Dan took a hit at the beginning of the pandemic when the food service industry closed abruptly.
“Sales depleted overnight, and we’d had a good food service trade prior to this,” he says.
“We had been selling our cheese in 5kg wheels, so we turned to pre-packing it then. We’re now stocked in selected Supervalu stores and recently we’ve been added to Dunnes Stores’ Simply Better range.
“Fortunately too, when the food service reopened, it did so with a bang and we’ve had the best summer since starting.”
The Templegall cheese recently picked up Supreme Champion at the Irish Cheese awards.
Dan says he diversified not just to add value to what he was doing as a dairy farmer, but to add a bit of craic into his occupation too.
“This business has provided for a varied and enjoyable lifestyle and although it took time and we had our setbacks, we are delighted to be where we are today,” he says.
What level of start-up costs did you incur?
We did most of the work ourselves. If I’d had to get a contractor in, I don’t think there would have been much change from €20,000.
Cheese-making is like farming: we are always reinvesting and trying to make the place better and more efficient.
Was financing readily available from the banks?
Well, sort of. If you tell your bank manager about your brilliant new cheese-making idea, the first thing he wants to see is the track record of the business, which doesn’t yet exist. So to get the show on the road I used personal loans and savings. Back then, it was easier to get bank financing in general because it was during the Celtic Tiger.
Was there any grant aid available?
Not at that time. Also, we made a lot of the equipment ourselves and did most of the work so we couldn’t have availed of a grant anyway.
How long did it take to get up and running?
A good few years. When you’re making a product that takes a year to mature, it can be slow process.
Did you find any state agencies helpful?
Teagasc and Eddie O’Neill were a great help in getting the business going. Also, I made great friends with people from different departments during my time in Teagasc Moorepark and I bounced ideas off them.
Anyone I’ve met in the Department of Agriculture has been helpful.
Also I found CAIS (the Irish Cheese Makers Association) extremely helpful. It’s a voluntary organisation run by the cheese makers and it doesn’t matter how big or small you are, everyone is treated the same. I’ve made great friends through CAIS who I often rely on for advice too.
Do you require any particular licence?
Yes, I had to register with the Department of Agriculture.
How did you know you would have a market?
We didn’t. There are no guarantees, no matter what you’re doing. We did speak people in the trade and they told us there was an opening for a cloth-bound cheddar.
What has been your biggest challenge?
In the early years it was getting the cheese right. With long-matured hard cheese it can be nine months before you know if the product is going to be good.
Also, it can be difficult to get your cheese on to the shelves. I put up 15,000km up on a Hiace fridge van in two years at the start.
What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a farm business?
Go for it and have no regrets. There is a lot of hard work in it, though. Farming is tough but in most cases you are guaranteed your milk or mart cheque, but when you are selling a product or a service there are no guarantees.
Also the best laid plans don’t always work out so you have to be able to roll with the punches. When I started out I had jet black hair and now it’s all grey. But I wouldn’t change a thing.