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Looking for a lifestyle change in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, Guy and Sue Trafford traded their city pad for 10 hectares at Charing Cross in 2012. Since then, they’ve worked tirelessly to develop a niche sheep’s milk operation, building up farm infrastructure, establishing a 200-ewe flock, building a dairy shed and on-farm processing plant, and have started producing their own delicious yoghurt, gelato and fresh cheeses. It’s been far from easy, but now that doors are beginning to open, they’re excited about the future.

Originally from Gisborne, the Traffords had worked on sheep and beef farms for close to 40 years before moving south to Christchurch in 2005, so Guy could finish his agricultural studies at Lincoln University. ‘We’d had enough of farm management; we’d been through some tough times,’ says Sue.

‘I was going to go to Lincoln, get my master’s and then head off overseas to save the world, but that never quite happened,’ laughs Guy.

After he’d finished his master’s, Guy was offered a lecturing position at Lincoln University. Sue initially worked for the regional fire service in Christchurch, before later joining Guy at the university, lecturing in communications. With their house badly damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes, the lecturers decided to sell up and move back to the country in search of new opportunities.

During their time in Gisborne they’d been involved with commercially farming East Friesian sheep, which are known for their sheep milking abilities, while managing a large Māori trust farming operation, and toyed with the idea of setting up their own sheep dairy. Back then though, East Friesians were in their infancy in New Zealand. ‘We knew as soon as they came off the truck that they were special,’ says Sue. But those early East Friesians simply weren’t hardy enough for New Zealand conditions, explains Guy. ‘We had a lot to learn about looking after them as a commercial flock. Initial death rates were really high.’

Today, many of those early problems they encountered are gone thanks to cross-breeding and better management, and on the back of success of companies like Blue River Dairy, Maui Milk, Spring Sheep New Zealand, Kingsmeade and Thorvald, prospects for sheep dairy are favourable. So, when the Traffords purchased 10 hectares at Charing Cross, they decided it was a case of now or never.

‘It was always sitting there as unfinished business. We always thought we had one big adventure left in us, but we never dreamt it would be this hard or be this expensive. We came in thinking we know a lot about sheep, we can do this! I’m not sure if it was brave or stupid. When we started we didn’t have a mortgage, but we have one now,’ smiles Sue.

In the Middle East and Europe, sheep’s milk has been used for centuries. Gram for gram, its superiority lies in its composition when compared in relative terms to goat’s and cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk contains about one third more energy than cow’s or goat’s milk (making it favourable with high performance athletes). It has double the protein, and much more of the right kind of fats, vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc, while being lower in sodium. It also has more folic acid.

‘The fat globules in sheep’s milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep’s milk more easily digested. It also has a higher solids content than goat’s or cow’s milk. As a result, more cheese can be produced from a litre of milk than a litre of goat’s or cow’s milk,’ explains Sue.

Armed with this knowledge, Guy and Sue managed to buy 40 Poll Dorset East Friesian cross ewes to form the nucleus of their flock, which were crossed over rams from Miles and Janet King at Kingsmeade Artisan Cheese in the Wairarapa. Over the years they have also added Awassi, a breed that originates in the Middle East, building the milking flock up to 200 on 40 hectares.

At first the Traffords planned to make premium artisan sheep’s milk ice cream themselves, but in 2014 they were approached by Deep South to supply the company with sheep’s milk to produce ice cream as a joint venture. They thought they had hit the jackpot, but for one reason or another, Deep South pulled out, leaving the Traffords scrambling to find contracts for their milk. So it was back to plan A.

It took them more than 18 months to set up the dairy shed and processing plant operation. The milking equipment they purchased from a former goat cheese maker, while the pasteuriser was imported from Greece.

Getting through the high regulatory and compliance burden, both in time and cost, proved a massive hurdle. While the Traffords accept that people need to know their food is safe, it’s been overwhelming. ‘It’s a minefield. It’s hard being the first mouse to the cheese. We accept that compliance is a necessary part, but the costs are ridiculous. The people at MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries) are great, but the system itself is a different story,’ says Guy.

Charing Cross Sheep Dairy started full production in 2017. Plans for making ice cream were shelved initially in favour of cheeses, with Sue taking on the role as head cheesemaker. ‘I thought it can’t be that hard,’ she says. ‘I just bought a book on cheesemaking, got legal compliance and started making it. There was a lot of trial and error. It does satisfy some level of creativity; it’s like Play-Doh for adults. It’s great.’

Although time-consuming, Sue splits her time between lecturing and making a range of labneh, haloumi, feta, Coulommiers (a French-style Camembert), and Manchego (a Spanish-style farmhouse cheese) for the Christchurch Farmers’ Market, as well as selected supermarkets and delicatessens. In the future they want to focus more on making stunning gelato, yoghurt and fresh farm milk.

Sue says the farmers’ market has been invaluable for getting their products in the public eye. While acceptance of sheep’s milk is rising, there are still people who turn their nose up at it. People often don’t realise some of the world’s great cheeses like Roquefort, Pecorino, Manchego and even feta are traditionally made from ewe’s milk, but once they’ve tasted it, they’re converted.

For the Traffords though, it’s as much about selling their products and indoctrinating people on the wonders of sheep’s milk as it is selling their ‘kinder, simpler, smarter’ story.

From the outset their goal was to produce a strong ethically-based business. They run their sheep solely on a low cost, pasture-based system. Ewes come in for milking once a day where they are fed 150 grams of feed. They lamb three times a year (June, September and November) which gives them a steady stream of milk from June to May, with additional milk frozen to be made into products at a later date. On average each ewe will produce around 200–250 litres of milk a year. Any lambs and ewes surplus to requirements are sold on.

But undoubtedly the biggest difference between the Traffords’ sheep dairy and traditional dairy farms is that they leave all their lambs on their mums for the first six weeks. ‘That really resonates with people; that’s something that people are prepared to pay for,’ says Sue.

Trying to manage a whole value chain approach from the sheep to the consumer had been a tough but interesting learning experience for the pair to date. Over the past 18 months they’ve pulled some huge hours, with little time for anything else. With Guy now retired from lecturing, they’re hoping to be able to concentrate more on the business, building on the success from last year.

And with cow dairying coming under continued public scrutiny and regulatory pressure, they also remain 100 per cent committed to promoting sheep dairy as a potential new growth industry.

For more information on Charing Cross Sheep Dairy, visit charingcrosssheepdairy.co.nz

[WORDS & IMAGES Annie Studholme]