Pasture-to-plate approach pays off for Wangapeka cheesemakers

Karen, left and Rennae Trafford of Nelson's Wangapeka Family Dairy.
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Karen, left and Rennae Trafford of Nelson's Wangapeka Family Dairy.

Is this the future model for food production in New Zealand? I think it just may be.

Wangapeka Family Dairy is a business built on a few key principles; firstly, it is a family owned business producing an artisan product using a big business attitude, secondly it is a business that can ensure the true quality of the product from the pasture to the plate. The third key is a desire to help change the way we think about food production and quality, and finally it is a business with a real help-your-community ethos.

Karen and Daryl Trafford are both from dairy, sheep and beef farming backgrounds and had been milking about 600 cows on their farm when they were asked to provide fresh milk for a cheese-making course.

A vat of Wangapeka cheese is stirred during the production process.

A vat of Wangapeka cheese is stirred during the production process.

After some really positive comments about the quality of their milk and the flavours of the resulting cheese Karen decided to go to one of the courses and learn about cheese-making herself and this encouraged Karen and Daryl to move in a new direction.

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Between 2008 and 2010 they moved away from large scale dairying to sheep and beef farming and then in 2013 sold the original farm, bought a new one and built a little factory to pursue a new approach to farming and food, they moved from large scale dairy farmers to small scale dairy producers milking about 75 cows in the summer months and 30 in winter with all of the milk being processed and sold by them direct-to-market in one form or another, be it fresh milk, yoghurts or cheeses.

Karen says that "with the goal of developing a holistic farm-to-market dairy business, we've found that the key to success is controlling everything from pasture to finished product, we like to call it pasture-to-plate."

Horopito, a semi-creamy, semi-hard cheese flavoured with cracked pepper,  is one of Wangapeka's most popular varieties.
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Horopito, a semi-creamy, semi-hard cheese flavoured with cracked pepper, is one of Wangapeka's most popular varieties.

When I asked Karen why they made such a huge change she told me it was a combination of a lot of things, she always had a real passion and interest in holistic health, "you are what you eat" she says.

While the move developed from a small interest in providing people with milk for cheese making it all comes down to wanting people to be able to buy wonderful dairy products that haven't been made using additives and preservatives, foods made in as natural way as possible.

"As a producer of a primary commodity we want consumers to know and trust our brand and products, what we say they are buying is exactly what we deliver, we want consumers to trust everything about our business, from animal welfare, environmental management, and quality of production using all organic practices, we want our customers to know they are buying food with integrity that has been created with a huge amount of personal passion for quality."

Finshed wheels of Wangapeka and Kakariki cheese ready for cutting.

Finshed wheels of Wangapeka and Kakariki cheese ready for cutting.

The whole family is involved in the business in one way or another Daryl has been running the farm but they will be employing a farm manager sometime this year so he can spend more time in the cheese business, son Ryan and his partner Rhi manage the raw milk business including commencing home deliveries later in the year while Rhi is also the workplace health and safety manager.

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Daughter Rennae has been managing the marketing this year while second son Jordy's partner McKenzie manages all of the IT within the business.

As the business is growing Karen and Daryl are stepping back a little from the day-to-day operations of the business and employing people with the right skills so they can work on their business rather than in it, Karen says "the business has got to the stage it is too big for us to do everything so we have to be in charge, set the direction for the business, look for new opportunities and ensure the integrity of the product but get others to do much of the work."

When you look at the range of dairy products they produce and have in the planning stages it isn't surprising they need some help. While they are currently looking at viability of milking sheep for sheep's milk cheeses and fresh ewe's milk and are preparing to sell unpasteurised milk, it is the current range of products like wholesome fresh milk, yoghurts, fresh cheeses and other soft camembert style and hard cheeses that keep them busy.

When I asked Karen and Rennae about the challenges of setting up a business like this Karen said it isn't for the feint-hearted, you need to learn everything, "in a small family business you are the producer, the manager, the marketing department, the quality assurance managers, the compliance manager; we needed to learn about food production, pasteurisation, microbiology testing, food safety and risk management but it has been an amazing journey and we have learned so much."

The Trafford family are also passionate about the community and the future of food production in New Zealand, they provide fresh milk to their local school for the kids breakfasts and try to engage as much as possible with the education sector.

Rennae told me she recently talked to a group of school kids about the skills a business like this needs and the opportunities for them to be part of quality food production; everything from farming, pasture management to food technology, chemistry, cheese making, marketing, branding, finance, compliance management, human resource management and health & safety management are all specialist areas students can get qualifications in.

Looking to the future they are keen to work more with the education sector, encouraging people to get into good healthy natural foods, they want to work with other producers to promote Nelson as a food production region, to help grow the region.
 

They want to get in front of young people, they want kids to make good choices with food and some of the changes needed for this to happen won't happen at home so changes need to happen in schools by encouraging kids to learn about food and the wonders of natural foods not just highly processed packaged items.

Karen says at a recent cheese awards public tasting it was "really obvious people in their 20's and 30's are right into their food and really know what they are doing and what they want, they want to know more about the integrity of the food they are consuming and that really excites me."

Rennae and Karen agreed it would be great to one day see something about cheese-making taught at NMIT, "New Zealand has some of the best milk and cheese in the world but we need to educate people about cheese-making, while there will always be major factories artisan cheese-making is something everyone can do at home, it could be the way of the future where each small town has its own cheese because, like wine, cheese tastes different depending on where the milk is produced."

Wangapeka Family Dairy products are foods produced with integrity, are foods you can trust and are foods that also just happen to have wonderful flavours and have won many awards and accolades.

Buy them at your favourite food store or visit them at the Grape Escape complex near Richmond.

 - Stuff

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