Irish cheese producers giving the French a lesson in how to make the most of the artisan market

Irish cheese producers giving the French a lesson in how to make the most of the artisan market

For many cheese producers the French tradition and history of cheese making is something to be marvelled at. In the early years many cheese makers went to France to learn the craft however cheese production in Ireland has progressed extensively in the last few years, so much so that we are now giving the French a run for their money in artisan cheese production! The Little Milk Company, a group of 11 organic dairy farmers have just secured a contract selling into the French organic co-operative, Bio-coop. Assuming that sales go well, this is a fantastic development for the farmers whose products were formally launched in January 2013.

These 11 farmers have been collaborating over the past 18months on developing a high quality product. Working with a renowned artisan cheese producer in the UK, they developed their recipe and the cheese is now manufactured for them at the award winning Mossfield organic processing plant in Offaly. 2013 saw the company formally launch their main product, an organic cheddar cheese on the market. The cheese is based on a traditional nineteenth century recipe using raw milk as the key ingredient. Also in 2013, they handed over the reins of the company to General Manager, Conor Mulhall, so that they can continue to be full time dairy farmers. “They have done the hard work developing the product while farming full time, it is now my job to take the product, contextualise the story and take it to the market and make sure it sells” said Conor. “The real selling point for me is that it is a fantastic product with a genuine story. Our unique selling point is that it is a raw organic milk product, it is a hand made cheese which is rare these days”.

In the first six months of business, the Little Milk Company have done exceptionally well, with sales outlets including independent retailers such as Donnybrook Fair, Cavistons, Ardkeen Store, and Sheridans. They have started working with the major multipes and in the coming weeks will be stocked in 30 Dunnes Stores. Currently in talks with Tesco, they hope to get their products listed shortly. They are also selling cheese into the UK and now France, not bad for 6 months trading!

Having participated in the recent Bloom event, the farmers were very pleased with the response to their cheese. Consumers were delighted to meet the producers and very enthusiastic about their cheese, and also tasted the new products, ice cream and frozen yoghurt which will be launched shortly. “As producers we felt that we were producing a commodity product and were losing our connection with the consumer. Our aim via the Little Milk Company is to shorten the supply chain, otherwise our message as producers gets lost. We want to be closer to the consumer. Also from the farmers’ point of view we have control of our product and subsequently the price that we get paid per litre” said John Liston, from Croom, Co Limerick, one of the founding members of The Little Milk Company.

Regarding the deal with Bio-coop in France, understandably The Little Milk Company are very pleased. Bio-coop started out over 25 years ago, and since then they have gradually expanded to 326 supermarkets across France. It exclusively stocks organic products and the majority of its products are supplied by French organic farmers, most of whom belong to a local co-operative. They carry a small range of imported products, one of which will be the vintage cheddar cheese from The Little Milk Company.

“When IOA arranged for us to meet with Franck Bardet, one of the founders and the main product procurer for Bio-coop we were delighted. From the beginning they liked our product and came to visit some of our farms and production plant, they were convinced about our ability to have a continuous supply and from September we will be stocked in almost all of their shops. This is a major coup for us, it endorses the quality of our product and we hope that it will give us a strong base from which to grow our business” outlined Mulhall.

The 11 farmers are from counties, Carlow, Kildare, Wexford, Limerick, Tipperary, Cork and Waterford. Pat Mulrooney, one of the pioneers of organic dairy farming in Ireland, and another of the founders of The Little Milk Company maintains that he still wants to continue farming. “I have enjoyed the process so far and for a small group of farmers I think that we have achieved a lot. Having gone through the process I am now even more convinced that farmers need to get involved in the market, while it is a daunting task it is essential if they want to run successful and sustainable businesses”.