Making a living off milk ...a tale of three Cork farms

In part two of her series on Milk, KATE RYAN spoke to three very different dairy farmers in County Cork
Making a living off milk ...a tale of three Cork farms

Johnny Lynch of Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella.

DAIRYING in Ireland is an industry built on small family farms, which are often passed down through generations of the same family.

Farms are small, with many selling direct to one of the many successful Co-Operatives across County Cork.

It’s a model that enables small scale farming, but its not always one that works for an individual farmer. Milk prices can fluctuate significantly, and for some enterprising farmers, such volatility can be a call to action, diversifying and taking control from farm to fork.

I spoke to three dairy farmers who produce three different styles of milk products in Cork: Water Buffalo in Kilnamartyra, Goats in Newtownshandrum and a mixed Jersey/Friesian herd near Dunmanway.

Geraldine and John Lynch amongst their herd of Buffalo. Picture: Denis Scannell
Geraldine and John Lynch amongst their herd of Buffalo. Picture: Denis Scannell

Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella – Johnny Lynch, Kilnamartyra

Johnny Lynch will always have a place in our hearts as the man sitting astride a buffalo in his field as three nuns on Vespas whizz past the farm gate! The Aldi ad made Johnny a household name in 2017, but water buffalo have been a feature on his land since 2009.

A family farm going back four generations, “possibly even further back than that”, is where he grazes 500 head of buffalo on 150 acres of owned land and 300 acres of leased land.

“Up to 2009, we were milking 50 Friesian cows, but that year the milk price was very low, about 20c per litre. At the time, the milk quota was worth something, so we sold the milk quota to our local Co-op, the cows to the Teagasc farm in Tipperary and imported 31 buffalo from Italy.”

In Northern Italy, from where Johnny sourced his Buffalo, animals are housed indoor all year round.

“It took the buffalo a week before they’d eat the grass because they didn’t know what grass was. They even ran on top of the rocks because they were afraid of the green, lush grass. 

After a couple of days, they still weren’t eating so we began throwing ration onto the grass — that got them going.

“We settled on buffalo because they’re roughly the same size as a cow; we could use the same milking parlour, same slatted houses. There would be a big outlay for the animals but not on farm infrastructure. We expect our buffalo to live to up to 15 years old — I still have a few I bought in 2009 on the farm with me!

“2015 was when the multiples started coming on board and things turned a corner. We could see the full potential of what we were doing. Aldi was the first to approach me and made a good foundation for us. From then on, all the multiples were very good supporters of us.”

In the early days, Johnny worked closely with Ger Kelleher of Olives West Cork who runs the recognisable deli stalls across all of Cork’s Farmers’ Markets. Ger regularly fed back to Johnny customer reaction to the cheese and selling direct to consumers was a key factor in the mozzarella being moulded into the traditional ball shape rather than a block or grated.

“Our Mozzarella has far better mouth feel, is creamier, and we were getting very positive feedback. 

A customer recently emailed to say she’s originally from Italy but living in Ireland for a number of years, that our Mozzarella tastes better than what she gets at home.

“We know that’s because our buffalos are out pasture grazing the fields for 10 months of the year on grass. That’s what gives it added flavour and better texture.”

The on-site cheesemaking facility currently produces three tonne of cheese per week across the range: Mozzarella (the biggest seller), Bocconcini, Ricotta, Halloumi and a Feta-style cheese. Demand continues to increase to the extent that production is struggling to keep up with retail demand. Expansion is on the horizon.

“We are looking to grow our herd by 20% in 2021, and also planning an extension to the cheesemaking facility which will almost double our capacity. Almost all our product will go into satisfying the domestic market.”

So, did Johnny realise the impact his change in farming direction would have to the Irish dairy story?

“Not beyond my wildest dreams! Back in 2009, I had pictured milking 60 buffalo and making cheese from that milk. It’s gone well beyond that!”

 Victor O’Sullivan, Newtownshandrum, of Bluebell Falls Goat Farm.
 Victor O’Sullivan, Newtownshandrum, of Bluebell Falls Goat Farm.

Bluebell Falls Goat Farm — 

Victor O’Sullivan, Newtownshandrum

Victor O’Sullivan’s enthusiasm for goats started in his teenage years when, riddled with health problems, he swapped cows’ milk for goats’ milk and never looked back.

“The goats fixed me,” he says, and now, at his homestead farm in Newtownshandrum he and his wife Breda farm a 200-strong goat herd on 35 acres, milking and making creamy Bluebell Falls Goats Cheese.

“My father was milking cows in Carrignavar – a farmer’s son is the only qualification I have in life! I went off doing different things including as a restaurateur in Cork city with Breda, who is a chef, and originally from Charleville. We bought the farm about 20 years ago.

“I always wanted to do something in farming but could never find a sector that was viable to start off brand new. 

"I always liked the goats, so we bought a herd and started supplying milk to a processor, then a couple of years later we began making the cheese ourselves.”

The herd is a mix of three breeds: Saanen for yield, Toggenburg and British Alpine for high milk solids, giving the cheese its mild, creamy flavour and texture. The goats graze on pasture all year round, and even though they have access to a shed in bad weather, “they usually don’t go in there,” says Victor.

“They’re very light on their feet so they do very little damage to the ground — easier on the earth.

“The goats kid between January and April, so we end up with milk all year round. We’re 100% natural — as good as organic but not certified as such. Our ways of farming are as simple as possible, the less intervention the better, the more natural the better and, in my opinion, the goat is the most natural way of farming.

“Our cheese doesn’t have a strong flavour, it’s not goaty. That’s down to what they eat, and it comes through in the milk. 

"Goats are a pure opportunistic forager — they’ll check out everything before they eat. We have 12 fields across the 35 acres, we don’t fall any ditches or cut any hedges — the goats do all of that. They keep everything under control. Goats need rougher, higher grass, they won’t graze down as tight as cows — they’re only looking for the best and then move on.”

The whole process happens on the farm. Important, Vincent says, because he has complete control over the quality of the product.

“I always wanted to go from start to finish. It makes sense to me to have the goats, produce the milk, make the cheese, sell the cheese. If we were just producing milk to sell as a pure economic activity, we’d have 1,000 goats and we’d have them all locked indoors all year round, pumping milk out of them and that would be that. That’s not the game I’m in, I just don’t like that idea. We get 2.5 litres per goat per day and it takes 5 litres to make a kilo of cheese.

“This year has been a complete disaster on the restaurant side, but we still have retail. Tesco take a lot of cheese from us, Health Food Shops, SuperValu and Lidl throughout the year too. Now we’re working to reinvent ourselves a little this year as business to customer rather than business to business. We’re creating an online shop, selling hampers and other products.”

 Kevin and Liz O’Donovan with their children Eabha and Caolán at the Gloun Cross Dairy at Gloun North, Dunmanway, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Kevin and Liz O’Donovan with their children Eabha and Caolán at the Gloun Cross Dairy at Gloun North, Dunmanway, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Gloun Cross Dairy — Kevin and Liz

O’Donovan, Gloun North, Dunmanway

2016 was a renaissance year for this family farm near Dunmanway. Forced to reassess everything after milk prices hit rock bottom, the O’Donovans had to find a way to get as much out of the farm working only with what they had. They decided to move away from supplying a local Co-op and bring production in-house, resulting in a fine quality milk — “milk like the old ways,” says Kevin.

“In 2015, the price of milk was on the floor. Around the same time, costs for running the farm were gone so high and the price of the milk was so poor we needed to see if there was a way we could still make a living out of a small farm to bring it into a viable enterprise.”

The herd size of 65 on a farm of 44 acres produces up to 6,000 litres of milk per cow per year.

“Before, we milked just Friesians, but the herd now is a mix with Jerseys too,” says Kevin.

“Because of what we’re doing, we had to have Jersey in the herd because we wouldn’t get the same taste or cream out of Friesian — you can’t beat a Jersey for what we’re doing.”

Gloun Cross Dairy are recognisable for their traditional glass milk bottles. The milk is pasteurised but non-homogenised, allowing for the cream to rise to the top. Shaking the milk bottle and pushing in the foil top is an old ritual rekindled for modern consumers.

“We decided on bottling our own milk and started selling it door to door. 

"We started in Macroom, it’s near to us and there are lot of houses and people there. We thought if we could get a percentage of them on board to take our milk, we’d be fine.

“We spent a pile of nights going door to door selling what we had, and initially thought we’d sell nothing, but every night we got more customers! We hadn’t a clue whether people would buy what we had — it was a complete shot in the dark for us, we were into the unknown completely. We were just lucky that people liked what we were doing, and we still do door to door in Macroom.

“We wanted something different to the normal shop milk — to have a niche. We went with non-homogenous because we didn’t like the milk that was out there anyway, we wanted to go back to the old style as much as we could. All we do is pasteurise it, we don’t interfere with it in any other way so we have the taste of milk the way it should be.”

The range of products have expanded beyond whole milk to include semi-skimmed milk, cream, butter and buttermilk — an organic process, listening to what customers were asking for.

“Going down this road, we have to make use of everything: when you go at it, you either go the whole way or you just dabble in the water. 

"At times we’d have excess cream and that gets turned into our hand-made butter — always making as much as we could out of what we had.”

Their timing was spot on in another way, never envisaged at the start: the rising popularity of coffee shops. Baristas looking for milk with a high fat content for lattes and cappuccinos came knocking on the door of the dairy.

“We didn’t know anything about lattes and cappuccinos, but we weren’t long finding out! It was the coffee shops found us, and now they are a big part of our business.

“The milk must suit the coffee shops because if the milk is the wrong quality or if it’s not up to scratch its no good for the coffee, so we strive to keep the quality of our milk as high as possible. It’s a growing market, there’s more coming to us all the time.”

Kevin’s final word goes to his customers: “We want to thank our everyone who supported us and gave us help along the way, we’re just happy that they did.”

Kate’s milk series continues next week. If you missed last week’s feature you can catch up on it below.

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