We should be milking the cheese market
LAST Tuesday, in Brussels, Dr Franz Fischler, the EU's Agriculture Commissioner, had a stark admonition for Ireland's dairying industry: get off your backsides and shape up. He told farmers and marketers to wake up and stop plodding along towards the great yellow butter mountain but have some original product ideas and bring in the younger generation.
His message was also directed at the beef sector but most of his advice was for the milkmen. Irish dairy producers were out of touch with what the market needed today. Five times too much butter, although it is the best and at the lowest cost, was being produced. This did not make sense. There was a huge urban market waiting out there for new and interesting products.
He suggested yoghurts, milk desserts - and cheese. We may be exporting such but not in sufficient bulk. We only put half the milk into cheese of the French and Italians. He exhorted: switch production away from butter and then get out and sell "more sharply". There was a parting shot at the marketing sector: "Can't you find someone to back your dairy industry with a positive young image?"
There was much more of the same stuff that no doubt will be well digested with the cheese and the yoghurt in the coming weeks. But surely not everybody in Irish dairying is lagging behind, is lacking in marketing experience and cannot be bothered to make anything but butter for intervention? Of course not.
One such man is Pat Hyland from Ballacolla in County Laois who, with his wife Joan and two helpers, is making a living from cheese-making on 50 acres of sheep pasture. The couple have four children.
Twelve years ago he began selling his produce, Abbey Cheese, in a tough market. While promoting in Holland he met a local who pointed out the advantages of becoming an organic producer. Pat told Cait Curran of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers' Association specialist magazine, Organic Matters: "I travelled on to Italy to look at enterprises and came back with the decision to go organic." He also made a vital decision to change from cows to sheep as the yield is almost double: five litres of sheeps' milk will produce one kilo of cheese to 10 litres from a cow. Now Pat has 200 sheep and produces seven cheeses, the best known being Abbey Brie and a feta, St Canice. These are available in some supermarkets and he retails directly to the public himself. Every Saturday will find him at the Temple Bar market in the centre of Dublin. He has an export business.
The Hylands are modest about their success. "We were losing money for the first four years until we became well established."
Their biggest headache is paperwork. Hello, Brussels! The hard cheese with long shelf-life for export is a continuance of a very ancient Irish tradition not without its slices of humour. A sling-shot of the hard stuff (tanach) is supposed to have been responsible for the demise of Queen Maeve and another product, out of Waterford, called mullahawn, needed a hatchet to split it, according to the old texts! The stuff the ancients traded for wine had durable qualities; it had to travel slowly over great distances.
The Hylands lead very busy lives, milking every morning, cheese-making and selling their goods. Says Pat: "We start around seven and there is no official end to the day. But you never have time to get bored or depressed." Someone should introduce him to Dr Fischler.