Waimata Cheese

March 2009

A vertically integrated cheese business

Rick and Carol Thorpe started Waimata Cheese 14 years ago, following a business desire of Carols. It has grown to be the third-largest specialty cheese maker in NZ. Now they have purchased a nearby dairy farm to secure their milk supply, after the local co-op Gisborne Milk closed down.

Rick and Carol Thorpe have a horticulture background (kiwifruit, persimmons and grapes) and had a packhouse and coolstore of their own when the kiwifruit boom had passed, which Carol could use to develop her passion for soft cheese making.

Waimata Cheese was begun 14 years ago and has now grown to be the third-largest specialty cheese maker in the country, after Fonterra and Goodman Fielder. It produces 300 tonnes of soft cheese like camembert, brie, blue vein and feta. Cheeses take two weeks of curing before wrapping and a further six weeks of maturation before transport to retail sales outlets.

Waimata uses three million litres of milk annually and now has annual sales revenue of $5 million. Waimata employs 20 people and has won numerous annual cheese awards. Carol is the sales and marketing manager, with major clients including all supermarket chains (about 95% of sales by volume). Milk supply was coming from Gisborne Milk, the local dairy co-operative, which closed in January 2008. Supply now comes from Fonterra, on daily delivery of an average of 10,000 litres, which is sourced from Gisborne dairy farms.

We started as novices in cheese-making and as the marketing contacts were developed we felt confident to expand production. Over the past five years production has grown up to 50% annually, said Rick.

Processing of milk delivered the day before is done in the mornings.

Rick and Carol had title to their new dairy farm of 89ha at Manutuke last June 1, although it had been leased from the Vette family since November 2007.

We bought the farm to secure supply because when Gisborne Milk shut their doors we were unsure of milk supply that we need five days a week.

The farm is an exciting extension of Waimata Cheese because it gives more control of milk supply and offers the potential for vertical integration of their cheese business with one possibility being organic certification.

The farm carries 230 cows, mostly Holstein-Friesian, and milking is through a 25-a-side herringbone shed. Rick is running the farm himself, with farm labour employed. He has never dairy farmed before but is a hands-on person and wants to develop a base for decisions to employ a sharemilker or herd manager in the future, and possibly expand dairying operations.

The farm produces about 1.2 million litres of milk annually, so that is not enough for the Waimata supply requirement. Rick is a contract supplier of milk to Fonterra and Waimata is a contract customer of milk from Fonterra under the local market access provisions of the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001.

The arrangement makes the best use of tanker transport, with farms around here on two-day pick-ups, and the Waimata plant requiring delivery every day. After Gisborne Milk closed, farms went on three-year supply contracts to Fonterra, so it make sense for our farm to continue in that way while we build production and assess the need for our own tanker.

Rick intends to bring in more Jersey influence to boost the milk solids content, which would be better for cheese-making. The calving of the herd has been split, to provide year-round milk for Waimata, and Rick brings in sweet corn waste from nearby Cedenco as feed supplement.

He is regrassing the farm, doing 40ha last autumn, 30ha with high sugar AberDart ryegrass. Another 30ha will be done this autumn.

Afternoon milking begins at about 3pm, although Rick is not required to milk on the afternoon of Feb 18.