Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish cheese producers giving the French a lesson in how to make the most of the artisan market

Grace Maher

Grace Maher

For many small-scale Irish cheese producers, France is the Brazil of the business.

The French set the standard and many Irish artisan cheese-makers still do a stint there to learn their craft.

However, cheese-making in Ireland has progressed massively in the last few years, so much so that we are now giving the French a run for their money in the artisan end of the market.

The latest Irish outfit to make waves in France is The Little Milk Company. The company, which is owned by a group of 11 organic dairy farmers, has just secured a contract selling into the French organic co-operative Bio-coop.

The French retailer is to sell The Little Milk Company's cheese brands, Croagh Patrick and Sliabh na mBan, which were formally launched just six months ago in January.

The 11 farmers involved – who hail from counties Carlow, Kildare, Wexford, Limerick, Tipperary, Cork and Waterford – have been collaborating over the past 18 months on developing high quality organic cheeses that are based on a traditional 19th-century recipes.

Working with a renowned artisan cheese producer in Britain, they developed their own recipe and two lines are now manufactured for them in Co Offaly.

The shareholders also handed over the reins of the company to newly-appointed general manager, Conor Mulhall.

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"They have done the hard work developing the product while farming full-time, it is now my job to take the product, contextualise the story and take it to the market and make sure it sells," said Conor.

"The real selling point for me is that it is a fantastic product with a genuine story. Our unique selling point is that it is a raw organic milk product, and it is a handmade cheese, which is rare these days."

In the first six months of business, The Little Milk Company has done exceptionally well. Sales outlets such as Donnybrook Fair, Cavistons, Ardkeen Store and Sheridans have stocked their cheese.

They have also started working with the major multiples and in the coming weeks hope to be stocked in up to 30 Dunnes Stores outlets.

At the recent Irish Cheese Awards they managed to scoop four awards, more than any other producer, and even won a prestigious Gold Medal. They are also selling cheese into Britain and now France, and are in discussions with retailers in Germany and Dubai.

Having participated in the recent Bloom event, the farmers were very pleased with the response to their cheese.

They also received very positive feedback on two new products in the pipeline, an ice cream and frozen yoghurt.

"Previously, as producers, we felt that we were producing a commodity product and were losing our connection with the consumer," explained John Liston from Croom, Co Limerick, one of the founding members of The Little Milk Company.

"Our aim via The Little Milk Company is to shorten the supply chain, otherwise our message as producers gets lost," he added.

"Also, from the farmers' point of view, we have control of our product and subsequently the price that we get paid per litre."

The Little Milk Company is obviously delighted with the recent deal with Bio-coop in France.

Bio-coop started out over 25 years ago, and since has gradually expanded into 326 supermarkets across France.

It stocks only organic products and the majority of them are supplied by French organic farmers.

They carry a small range of imported products, one of which will be the vintage cheddar cheese from The Little Milk Company.


"When IOFGA arranged for us to meet with Franck Bardet, one of the founders and the main product procurer for Bio-coop, we were delighted," said Conor Mulhall.

"From the beginning they liked our product and came to visit some of our farms and production plant. They were convinced about our ability to have a continuous supply and from September we will be stocked in almost all of their shops," he added.

"This is a major coup for us, it endorses the quality of our product and we hope that it will give us a strong base from which to grow our business."

Pat Mulrooney, one of the pioneers of organic dairy farming in Ireland and another of the founders of The Little Milk Company, said there were lessons for all farmers from their experiences of late.

"Having gone through the process I am now even more convinced that farmers need to get involved in the market. While it is a daunting task, it is essential if they want to run successful and sustainable businesses."

Irish Independent