Retro Organics 2014

August 2014

A dairying family has built a factory on their farm and is now producing yoghurts and cheeses

Lois and Robin Greer began their cheese making business on their dairy farm in 2008 and now make a range of organic cheeses and yoghurts as well as lactose-free yoghurt and milk under their Retro Organics label.

Lois and Robin have been dairy farmers for 33 years, starting off in the south of Auckland, later sharemilking in Waikato for 12 years and then moving to Southland in 1993. They bought their Tuturau farm just in between Mataura and Edendale that year and five years later moved to organic production.

In 2008 they built a cheese factory on their farm, a move Robin had dreamed about more than 20 years ago when he wanted to be able to follow food production from the paddock to the plate. They pump the milk 75m from the organic dairy shed to the cheese factory, enabling much more rapid processing.

Robin and Lois are driven by a belief that the organic process is better for people’s health. Their aim is to produce quality cheese that consumers can have confidence in. Retro was chosen as a label for their product because it refers to food “the way it used to be”.

They produce a full range of cheese including camembert, feta, haloumi, colby, farmhouse-style cheddars, a selection of blues and mozzarella. And they sell fresh whole milk, as well as lactose-free yoghurt and milk. The yoghurt comes in a variety of flavours: plain, honey sweetened, raspberry, apricot and orange and mango.

While the majority of products are sold on the local market, they now export a selection of cheeses to Australia. They have been very successful in the cheese awards. In the last four years they have won 23 medals, including a recent gold medal for their Farmhouse Cheddar.

Both farms are on adjoining properties at Tuturau, not far from the big Fonterra factory at Edendale. The organic property, Bio-Gro certified in 2010, is around 130ha and milks 350 Jersey cows. The conventional herd is around 550 on a milking platform of around 180ha.

Robin says there’s a lot of security about being a Fonterra supplier and they are still happy to be one. The second farm supplies all its milk to Fonterra and currently 80% of the organic milk ends up there too. Ultimately they’d like to be using all their milk for cheese production.

The factory is very big for a startup business. It is designed to be able to handle all the milk both farms produce, but is only processing 20% of the milk from the organic farm at the moment, leaving huge potential for development. Robin did a lot of research before starting to build, both here and Australia. In all he spent about three years looking around. He says everyone he spoke to told him they wished they’d built a bigger factory. He decided he and Lois would not make the same mistake. They’re still happy with that decision, even though it will be some time before they are up to full capacity.

It was a big investment. Robin says they spent similar money to what a dairy conversion would have cost. The factory is well designed with a shop attached with windows placed to view the plant in operation. Robin says they’d not do anything differently except perhaps widen a few doors.

The business is a family affair with Robin and Lois working full time. “We have a really great relationship,” Robin says. “She picks up all the pieces after me.” That means she does all the administration for the business, while Robin is the front man. Their daughter Catherine looks after packaging and dispatch. She used to take the cheeses and milk down to Mataura to meet the delivery trucks, but now the business has grown so much, the trucks come to them. Their son Brendan, home for a couple of years after working in IT in Christchurch, has just taken over managing the organic dairy farm. And although trained himself, Robin now employs cheese maker Alan Wilson.

They also have another daughter nursing and a son at Lincoln University.

Robin was completely new to marketing. Until the business got underway, he was in his own words “a humble dairy farmer”. These days he cold calls supermarkets and hosts visitors at the factory. “We are planning to employ someone else in the factory so I can be away more,” he says. In order to develop new markets, Robin has set up an online store and believes there is more potential in this area. “We are employing a marketing person to look at different options, including selling direct.”

Currently they are producing only what they can market, so they need more stores Robin says. They have distributors in the North Island for their yoghurt sales, and in-store tastings are also held.

The next big challenge for the business is to expand marketing efforts during the next few months. In the last year the biggest growth area has been in their lactose-free yoghurt. They were the first in New Zealand to develop lactose free yoghurt and milk, in 2012. “We found a similar product in Australia, and brought the idea back. So many people in the population are lactose-intolerant. I was told 75% of the population has lactose intolerance to some extent, so it’s a very big market. We are producing the only lactose-free yoghurt in the country. And we only use Jersey cows, and we are organic. These are our points of difference.”

Jersey cows produce creamy milk and are nicer to farm and friendlier than other cow breeds, Robin says. Because of their smaller size they are also more efficient, which is another reason to farm them.

“We are a small family business trying to produce good healthy food for people. We really want to get this message out. Our products are totally traceable, and we can trace each product back to the paddock the cows ate the grass in.”

“It is really nice to be able to produce these products and communicate with our end users. New Zealand farmers produce some of the best food in the world yet they have no communication with the end users. It’s something that I really think is important. It goes back to my days when I was butchering. It’s quite something when you get people emailing you about your product and thanking you for producing it. Most farmers miss out on all that.”