Cork woman goes from engineer to award-winning cheese maker

From a hi-tech office to the lush green fields of Cork, Norma Dineen swapped one very successful career for another and is now an award-winning cheese maker, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Cork woman goes from engineer to award-winning cheese maker
Norma Dineen, who left her corporate role to get a work/life balance and who now is an award winning cheese-maker working from the home farm, Bó Rua Farm, Ballynoe.

NORMA Dineen’s workplace is a very different environment to the one she was used to most of her working life.

The hi-tech office and the airport terminal are no longer on her radar. She is quite content in the lush green acres of the family farm, Bó Rua Farm, neatly nestled near the pretty east Cork town of Ballynoe.

“I have a great view from my workplace and the picture-perfect green countryside is lovely to wake up to each morning,” she says.

Norma, mum to Méabh, aged seven, Ainé, aged six, and Tadgh, nearly three, had a high-flying career that often involved travelling to the USA and Asia when she worked as an electronic engineer employed by a US multi- national company. Now she can stroll up the lane to work every morning.

Here, Norma’s loyal colleagues, the herd of Montbeliarde cows, are very productive, providing plentiful rich nutritious milk, perfect for making the award-winning Bó Rua Farm Cheddar Cheese.

“It is just sinking in that we won the Gold Award in the Blas Na HEireann Final in Dingle this year,” says Norma, who has been in the cheese-making business five years.

Norma Dineen and her family, at Bó Rua Farm, Ballynoe
Norma Dineen and her family, at Bó Rua Farm, Ballynoe

“It is a fantastic accolade for my husband, Tom, and I. The Blas Na hEireann Food Awards is the biggest competition for quality produce in Ireland, so we were chuffed.”

Norma was chuffed when she realised there was a world beyond her office and beyond travelling the world — a world where she could keep a semblance of life/work balance. She knows exactly when the light-bulb moment jolted her to change tack.

“It was during the first week back after our second child, Ainé, was born. I was asked to make a trip to Shanghai.

“My immediate thought was, ‘This isn’t right’, I’m not going to be able to keep any kind of work/life balance. I was going to be constantly making decisions that I didn’t want to make.”

Things looked good on paper.

“I had good money, a good social life, lots of foreign travel. In reality, I should have been happy out.”

Yet, a real sense of fulfillment didn’t come with the package. Within six weeks Norma had left the company.

“I needed more flexibility, and I needed to be able to set my own schedules. Apart from the frequent overseas travel, I had a daily commute from Ballynoe of up to three hours to the Cork or Limerick offices.

“The girls, Méabh, and Ainé, went to the brilliant community childcare centre in Conna where Tadgh goes to now. Tom did a lot of the dropping off and collecting, he had more flexibility than I had.

“Our parents were great to help out, but there was a bit of juggling involved.”

The Castlelack native took the giant leap from on high into pastures new. Norma took the plunge into pursuing a gem of an idea, using the skills she already had into making the dream that herself and Tom had of diversifying the farm, a reality. She knew the terrain well.

Chees maker Norma Dineen and Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed
Chees maker Norma Dineen and Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed

“I’m from a dairy-farm background,” says Norma. “So moving to a farm out in the country when I married Tom was familiar territory.”

The couple met 10 years ago through an organisation where many Irish love stories begin.

“You guessed right!” says Norma, “We were both involved Macra na Feirme in Innishannon and we met at a fundraising event. After graduating from UCC I got a job with EMC, spending two years there. After completing a Masters in Electronic Engineering I was offered a job with Analog Devices.”

The combination of a successful career and fulfilling motherhood became no longer feasible. Norma didn’t have to look far to begin another satisfying career.

“While I was on maternity leave after Ainé was born, I considered how we might add value to our milk,” says Norma.

Tadgh came along while the new venture was in the making.

“We are fortunate to have the ideal mix of fresh air, fertile soil and rain which produces a plentiful supply of lush grass for our Montbeliarde herd, affectionately known as ‘Red Cows’, and our Frisian cows, to graze,” says Norma.

“The pure milk they produce is rich, nutritious and delicious-perfect for cheese-making.”

Made on Bó Rua Farm, using traditional techniques, the original Irish farm cheese is handmade using pasturised milk and gently aged until it has a firm, yet delicately creamy texture. The unique cheese cut its teeth with the The Food Academy Programme and SuperValu Midleton.

“We got a very encouraging response from all our tastings,” says Norma.

“The facility, here, which is essentially a big fancy shed was erected a year ago. I start work here then producing cheese at 6.30am three mornings a week.”

Initially, Norma availed of a pilot cheese-making plant in Teagasc’s food research centre in Moorepark, Fermoy.

The work/home timetable is sorted between the Norma and Tom.

“Tom steps in to help with the homework so I can focus on the business. Yes, it can often mean working late after taking time out for a school concert, or other things. But it’s doable,” says Norma. “It only takes me two minutes to walk from the house to the dairy.”

She loves her job at home in the farm. “I loved my previous job too,” says Norma.

Like their owners, the Red Cows enjoy award-winning status.

“In recent years we’ve been honoured to receive two Animal Health Ireland, ‘Milking for Quality Awards’, in recognition of the excellent quality milk our cows produce,” says Norma.

Is the former electronic engineer her own boss now?

“Starting my own business with Tom has been super,” says Norma, who was accepted for a free, peer-led support programme for female entrepreneurs in rural Ireland, Accelerating the Creation of Rural Nascent Start-ups, (ACORNS), funded by the Department of Agriculture, providing a significant step in developing the cheese- making business.

What does Tom think of having his wife on site 24/7? “It’s great,” says Tom. “We can bounce things off one another while we work together. Rural farming can be very isolating. We have the best of both worlds now.”

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