Hurdles for Artisan Cheesemakers
In memory of artisan cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davies
Biddy Fraser-Davies owns and operates a small scale artisan cheese making business from her farm near Eketahuna. She milks her cows and makes cheese, often individual cheeses from each animal. This international award winning cheese maker has had ongoing battles with government agencies over the auditing/compliance processes.
Biddy Fraser-Davies divides her life into decades. In her twenties she was a mum, in her thirties an artist, her forties a writer, her fifties a board member and now, from her sixties into her seventies she’s a farmer, milk harvester and cheese maker.
Colin, Biddy’s husband, has had a variety of careers as well. The former research chemist, school teacher and data programmer is now the cow-man on their 4.5ha dairy farm. The farm is ten minutes south of Eketahuna and runs four cows – Dizzy, Patsy, Holly and Isobel. They live an indulged and stress free life on their farm.
The block was originally intended as a retreat away from suburbia but when Colin was made redundant from TranzRail and Biddy’s term as Tower board member came to end, the two of them realised they were going to have to convert their farmlet into something that could generate an income.
Biddy was given a jersey calf named Gwendolyn to rear, not long after coming to the block. As an indulged adult cow, she swamped Biddy with milk. “I don’t take milk in my tea so the question was what to do with the daily twenty six litres of milk she was giving us. Fonterra don’t pick up from a one cow operation.” Rather than use it all on the cornflakes, their idea was to make cheese and butter and sell it locally.
The only problem was that neither of them had any farming experience.
“The last time a family member of mine owned a cow was around the 1700’s,” quips Colin. Biddy had hand milked a cow as a child, but both of them were raw beginners in the complexities of animal health and pasture management. While Biddy set about learning what she could about milking and cheese making, Colin picked up what he could on farm management from textbooks.
Today Biddy’s farmhouse cheeses are sold in top-end Wellington restaurants and delicatessans around Wairarapa, as well as from the farm gate. Between the cheese and income from a model railway (the largest in New Zealand) the couple earn enough to support themselves and the cows.
Biddy milks her cows each morning then heads into a small cheese making room to start turning the milk from each individual cow she’s milked into award winning “farmhouse” style cheese – similar to cheddar but with a more flexible composition criteria. Each cheese is made from milk of an individual cow. Both milking and cheese making is carried out by Biddy – with help from Colin. They pay a lot of attention to hygiene and making sure the milk is of the highest quality.
Some years ago Biddy was featured on a rural TV programme, which resulted in her coming to the attention of the food safety agency. There was no problem with her processes – but they were appalled by the lack of paperwork and lack of official auditor and verifier. What followed was a long and protracted battle with government agencies trying to make a micro-cheese maker fit into the auditing processes that are applied to the large dairy processing companies like Fonterra and Open Country.
Biddy thinks she’s possibly the only cheesemaker in New Zealand making cheese using thermised milk. This means the milk is heated to 65°C but only held there for 19 seconds instead of 30 minutes. In many countries, thermised milk for cheesemaking is legally classified as raw milk cheese and MPI permits her to do this. She says the compliance costs for real raw milk cheese make it impossible economically. A single wheel of cheese of around 3-4 kilos would cost around $600.00 in compliance costs.
Biddy’s been working MPI to develop a ‘Micro-cheesemaking template’. In May 2013 – the auditor told her he was quite happy with her processes but the company would not quote for on-going audits as her level of production did not justify their fees. She makes roughly $33,000 per year from her cheese making. The estimated cost for a single audit were around $4,000.00 so Biddy told MPI this was ridiculous and she wasn’t going to pay it.
One of Biddy’s beefs with MPI is that it charges her annually just under $600 to monitor her performance. This is a statuary fee for all dairy companies who produce under 316,000 kg of milk solids annually. She has been trying to persuade them that, as her milk solid total is around 750 kg annually (O.23%) of their lowest rate, this is hardly fair.
Biddy says small production Artisan cheesemakers are an asset to the country, especially for the tourist industry, where some folk are disenchanted with aspects of large scale factory farming models. She has appeared in front of a Select Committee in Parliament in regards to compliance fees for small cottage industry people like her.
Biddy’s cheese – Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese – won a Silver Award in the World Cheese Awards 2013 and silver and a bronze award in the World Jersey Cheese Awards 2012, and 2 Bronze awards in the Oceanic Jersey Cheese Awards 2011.
At the World Cheese Awards 2014 in London, Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese improved on last year’s Silver Award with a super gold award. This means that her cheese was judged to be one of the top 62 in a field of 2500 cheeses from 33 countries.
Biddy’s response was; “I’m really chuffed!!”
Check out their website www.finefoodworld.co.uk/world-cheese-awards
Additional Notes from Biddy Fraser-Davies
One of the less obvious challenges of cheese making these days is surviving the convoluted bureaucratic business of legally selling your surplus. Imagine someone with an amputated leg who has lost their artificial one, trying to negotiate a 10 Km tramp through a mangrove swamp. I’ve written this article in the hope it will help find your leg!
Initially, I erroneously assumed you merely got a licence from your Local Authority Environmental Health Officer, as happens in the UK. I proudly displayed my framed licence from Tararua District Council, which cost $100 a year and included regular inspections from a fussy inspector. Later, after Colin and I appeared on TVNZ “Country Calendar” in 2009, I was firmly told by the (then) NZ Food Safety Authority that this licence wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, because, as a cheese maker dealing with milk, I needed not one but two Risk Management Plans. One for the cheese making, and another (as I insisted on using the milk from my own happy, healthy and contented cows) for the farm. My compliance costs rocketed from $100 to $5,500. At that time, my cheese making turnover from milking a couple of cows was around $20,000 a year the compliance costs seemed a bit steep. I decided that the regulations needed adjusting.
As it happens, I am a stubborn old woman, reasonably articulate, with an elderly computer that enables me to fire off letters to all and sundry, so I started a campaign to persuade the authorities that their existing regulations, which assumed you were milking hundreds of cows and dealing with several daily tanker loads of milk to a cheese factory, were not particularly relevant in a situation where you were milking a couple of tame house cows and making around 6-8 kilos of cheese a week. Obviously the hygiene routine needs to be the same, as pathogenic bugs are just as happy proliferating in a large or small environment. But conditions in a small, properly run cheese room and milking parlour are far easier to control with a single operator than in a factory situation, where up to 50 personnel have to be managed, to say nothing of a cowshed dealing with the effluent of hundreds of cows.
After some 3 years of intensive letter writing and a personal written and verbal submission to the Primary Industry Select Committee in Parliament, I am pleased to say new regulations for ‘micro cheese making operations’ have been formulated. It is these I am going to describe, so that those living on lifestyle blocks, who desire to make their own cheese, can have the freedom to sell their surplus in order to make their small farm as self-sufficient as ours.
My cheese making experience is only related to cow’s milk, but using milk from any other mammal would have much the same implications. It is unfortunate that cows are regarded by city based food safety officials with such deep suspicion as dangerous and badly designed mobile biohazards, presumably because their milk storage facility is located just below their waste elimination vent. And, it must be admitted, warm milk as used for making cheese, is a marvelous medium for growing bugs, good and bad. Hence the Ministry of Primary Industry’s desire to regulate and control such a potentially lethal combination! Small-scale marmalade or fudge making is probably much easier to regulate!
The Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI)’s new ‘Micro Cheesemakers Trial Programme’ is written for those who have sole care and control of their lactating animals and who want to make cheese to legally sell from the milk of these animals, either from their farm gate or local Farmers Markets.
Exporting your cheese under this programme is not permitted. The milk production limit is 1000 litres a week from lactating animals, either 6 or less cows, 10 buffalo, 24 sheep or 24 goats. Naturally you are only allowed to have one group of animals, not the entire range, and note that the only cheese permitted to be made under this regime is hard cheese from heat treated milk – heat treatment can either be pasteurised or thermalised – and the composition of the cheese must conform to certain precise criteria.
I quote: “Hard cheese manufactured in accordance with the permitted methods of processing for this programme, and having the following characteristics:
- Heat treated in accordance with pasteurisation conditions highlighted in DPC3 and section 23 of this programme
- Is made using a process that does not exceed 5 hours and 30 minutes from the addition of the starter culture through to draining whey (e.g. Hooping or Cheddaring
- Moisture % during shelf life of less than 39%
- Minimum maturation period 30 days (if pasteurised) or 90 days (if thermised)
- pH during shelf life of less than 5.6, and this pH to be first achieved within 72 hours of the start of manufacture.
- No more than 1000 litres of milk to be processed per week at the location identified under 2.3
- Raw milk must be no older than 24 hours for thermised product and 72 hours for pasteurised product.
- A lactic acid producing starter culture must be added
- No chemical, including vinegar, is to be added to reduce the pH
- No starch or gelatine to be added
Sadly, Biddy passed away on Friday 13 July 2018. She was 76. She will be remembered for her tireless campaigning for artisan cheesemakers in New Zealand.