22 Feb 2017

Hawke's Bay farmers make most of appetite for organics

12:49 pm on 22 February 2017

Step aside kale, make way salted caramel - a Hawke's Bay cheesemaker is pushing organic sheep-milk cheese as the next big thing for upmarket diners.

This week the Ministry for Primary Industries approved PJ and Tom White's cheese-making facilities Sentry Hill Organics in central Hawke's Bay.

After nearly a year of paperwork, the Whites can now officially sell their homemade dairy products - and they say top Auckland restaurants are embracing the organic cheese.

The farm is nestled at the foot of the Ruahine Ranges and many years ago it was part of the larger White family estate, a traditional sheep, beef and cropping farm.

But since PJ and Tom bought the farm from Tom's parents about six years ago, they've taken the word 'diversification' seriously.

"We've got milk, dairy product, free range organic pigs, we've got a whole range of things... organic beef as well, it's the whole picture," PJ said.

PJ and Tom White.

PJ and Tom White. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

The herd of dairy cows and dairy sheep are grazed together, brought in together and milked together in the herringbone shed.

"It's just time efficiency really. Tom built this nifty little head bale holding thing and it's all running off the cow plant.

"We've re-jigged it so that one end of the milk pump does the cows milk and one end of the milk pump does the sheep milk."

Once the milking is done, which usually takes about an hour, the cows' milk is driven down to feed the paddock full of hundreds of Berkshire pigs.

The pigs were the reason the Whites got their organic certification, and PJ said it was because of the demand from a local butcher.

"The butcher, Andy Tait-Jamieson, phoned us up and said 'I hear you've got some free range pigs' and I said 'yeah one or two'.

He said 'I'd be interested in buying a few of them - would you be interested in certifying them?'

"We were already doing most things anyway, so just had to do the paperwork."

A Berkshire piglet

One of the farm's Berkshire piglets. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

With MPI approval of Sentry Hill Organics' cheese making facilities, the Whites can sell fresh milk, yoghurt and cheese straight from the farm gate and to restaurants, and are supplying cheese fine food company Sabato to sell to Auckland restaurants.

Last year at the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, Sentry Hill Organics won the Curds & Whey Champion Home Crafted Cheese & Cheesemaker, a gold medal for their Quark, a silver medal for the Feta, and a bronze for their Pecorino.

But it hasn't been easy to get to this point, and PJ said she had had to lower her sights and make pasteurised sheep's cheese instead of raw milk cheese.

"The regulations are just too hard. And especially because I'm so early in the system I opted to play by the rules for the first couple of years to get a reputation, get up and running. And then I'd like to dive into raw milk cheese.

"When we eat our own cheese it's raw milk cheese - just not the stuff to sell."

PJ White said the sheep-milk cheese had come from a lot of experimentation.

One is created from her award winning quark, with two cultures added, penicillium candidum and another known as geo. "It makes the cheeses wrinkly and white on the outside and soft and deliciously creamy on the inside."

The Sentry Hill Organics milking shed.

The Sentry Hill Organics milking shed. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

It's been hard work to make a living off their farm and the Whites hope that being able to sell the sheep cheese will help balance the books.

"I always say the only reason to be a farmer is because we eat really good food. Financially farming is not the greatest incentive to be a farmer at the moment."

Good products cost money to make, she said.

"Especially organic farmers or sustainable farmers - people doing things a bit differently. You can't make bacon for the price it is in the supermarket, it's just not possible."