Retro Organics Cheese

May 2011

A vertically integrated family-run organic cheese business

Robin and Lois Greer moved towards organic dairy farming in 1998 on their Tuturau property and are now making cheese in a purpose built factory on the property.

Robin and Lois both started south of Auckland. Robin’s dad died early and he headed into butchery before taking on sharemilking. The two of them milked in the Waikato before moving to Southland close to 20 years ago. They now run two diary farms – an organic unit and a conventional dairy farm.

Around three years ago they built a cheese factory on the property. Milk is pumped from the dairy shed straight to the factory – this enables them to process milk almost straight off the cow.

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.

Lois and Robin have lived at Tuturau since 1993. They purchased this farm after 12 years sharemilking in Northern Waikato. All up they’ve been milking about 30 years.

The business started as a dream of Robin’s 18 years ago. He wanted to be able to follow the production of food all the way from the paddock to the “plate.”

They started moving towards organic farming in 1998. Robin says they’d started to think about conventional farming systems and the chemicals used – and the effect that was having on peoples’ health.

Both of them had lost parents at a young age and believed diet was linked to both deaths. Robin says they arrived at organic almost by a process of elimination. They don’t see themselves as greenies or tree huggers.

Retro was chosen as a label for their product because it refers to food “the way it used to be”.

Both farms are on adjoining properties at Tuturau – not far from the big Fonterra factory at Edendale. The organic property – which is closest to their own processing plant – is around 130ha and milks 330 cows. The conventional herd is around 380 cows, moving to around 450 this year. The platform there is around 164ha.

The organic property was Bio-Gro certified in 2010. Robin has a manager (Mike) on the organic farm. Mike has been with him for 14 years and has been a keen adopter of the organic system. A new sharemilker starts on the conventional farm this year.

On the organic farm they have a big focus on animal health. Robin says on organic farms you need to be proactive about health to get on top of it – it’s no good to be treating animals after they get sick. Far better to be keeping them healthy. They use a cider vinegar / garlic based drench. Mastitis is a big issue on the organic farm. If the problem becomes an on-going one they’ll treat the cow with penicillin and move her to the conventional herd (a big advantage of having two herds).

Robin says there’s a lot of security about being a Fonterra supplier and they are still happy to be one – the 2nd farm supplies all its milk to Fonterra and currently the bulk 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 start up business. It is designed to be able to handle all the milk both farms produce. Currently it is only processing around 5% of the milk. He says there’s huge potential for development.

Robin says he 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 said they’d wished they’d built a bigger factory. He decided he and Lois would not make the same mistake. They’re happy with that decision even though it will be some time before they are up to full capacity.

The factory is well designed and has a shop attached with windows to view the plant in operation. Robin says they’d not do anything differently except perhaps widen a few doors.

Robin has done all the training to make cheese but now uses a cheese maker – Matthew Tarbottom. Matthew was in the district already – doing some study and looking for work. Robin took him on and sent him off to train in cheese making. It has proven to be a successful appointment.

The Greer’s daughter Catherine – looks after the packaging and dispatch.

Robin says the biggest challenge has been dealing with the bureaucracy. Finding someone in officialdom that actually understands their business was really important. In early days Robin says he tore a lot of hair out trying to explain to the bureaucrats in various offices what he was up to. He says some people are great but initially he found a number of people without the practical experience.

Overall they are happy with the level of research they did to get underway.

Robin was completely new to marketing. Until the business got underway, he was in his own words “ a humble diary farmer”. These days he attends a couple of farmers markets, cold calls supermarkets and hosts visitors at the factory.

Aside from trying to develop new markets Robin also has set up an online store. Currently they are producing only what they can market.

Retro produces a big range of dairy products – camembert, feta, cheddar, haloumi along with fresh milk and yoghurt.

Robin doesn’t think every NZ dairy farmer should be out making cheese. He believes the industry will always need a Fonterra but there’s a lot more space for farmers like him who want to follow their product all the way to the completed item.