Where the Grass is Greener…

Rolling green hills and meandering cattle are iconic images of Norfolk Island, and so visitors to the island are forgiven for presuming they can buy fresh local milk. Those who are familiar with the dairy industry however, know that procuring enough milk to ensure a profitable business is unrelenting hard work. In an era where milk, cream, cheese and a whole gamut of dairy and goats’ products are readily available at the local shops, it may seem like the bases are already covered. But what if you were offered a delicious slice of fresh haloumi or marinated goats’ cheese, knowing that it harnessed the green grassy goodness of Norfolk Island? In a world where locally made organic produce is hot property, most would find it hard to refuse. And so lies the premise of two on-island entrepreneurs, with a little help from some of the world’s happiest grazers.

Situated on the northwest corner of Norfolk Island lies the area known as Anson Bay. Although only a ten-minute drive from the commercial centre of Burnt Pine, ‘out Anson’ has the feel of a separate little country town, rural and untouched. It is here that you will find Emily Ryves, a young lady up to her armpits in kids – though only one that resembles Emily and her fiancé Zach. Several years ago, Emily watched a documentary on SBS about two ladies in Victoria making artisan goats’ cheese, and she was struck by how similar their lifestyle and outlook were to her own. She also knew that Norfolk Island would be an ideal location for a similar initiative. Emily was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2011 to travel to Australia and research goats’ milk and cheese production, and has since dived wholeheartedly into her project. At the ‘Hilli Goat Farm’, she is awaiting the birth of her first goat kids in July, and can sense that her life is about to change dramatically.

Although goats’ milk is fairly new to this side of the world, it has been a staple part of Middle Eastern and Asian diets for centuries. More milk from goats is consumed in the world than from any other animal, and the same goes for goats’ meat. These products are now huge in North America, and Australia is starting to follow suit, especially as they cotton-on to the health benefits. Goats’ milk is naturally homogenised, meaning that there is less separating of its constituents, and therefore the human body works less hard to digest the milk. It takes only twenty minutes for goats’ milk to be digested by the human body, as opposed to twenty-four hours for cows’ milk. And as an added bonus for Emily, the goats have an appetite for one of Norfolk’s most annoying weeds – the African Olive!

Emily feeds pellets to the goats twice daily, though they also nibble on bark, weeds, seeds, and of course, Norfolk grass. Aside from the initial set-up with fencing and importing the animals, the goats are low maintenance and have taken to their new home with ease. With names like Stevie, June, Maggie Lane and Kendra, all named after members of the Emily and Zach’s families, they are already cherished members of the community, especially loved by Norfolk’s children. Emily and Zach’s one-year-old boy Charlie is just one of the kids at Hilli Goat Farm, though he has the distinction of being allowed to sleep in the house. Emily’s father Steve plays a hands-on role at the Hilli Goat Farm, though before his daughter’s new enterprise, he had never seen a goat in his life. He now shares an intimate relationship with the curious critters, and his namesake Stevie is a handful! Stevie loves to jump in the wheelbarrow, and her comrade June once stole Steve’s screws and put them in the water trough. The Ryves’ definitely got more than they bargained for with this business venture, for the goats are not just walking milk and cheese, but extended family.

When the does birth their young, they will be able to supply up to 4L of milk daily, and this will increase over the year. They will be milked twice daily, and the cheese making will take place somewhere in between. It was important to Emily that these goats came from top quality stock, and she envisions that the herd will continue to grow until she has a successful little cottage industry, complete with a café and tours. The grand appeal for Emily is that her own children will grow up with the ‘paddock to plate’ mentality and learn to create their own connection to the earth and the animals upon it. She grew up surrounded by good food, with homegrown fruit and vegetables, and now little Charlie and any future siblings will also benefit from this lifestyle. And of course, all on Norfolk Island – local or visitor – will benefit from fresh goats’ milk, and a selection of cheeses, yoghurts and other wonderful products.

Cut across the Norfolk paddock to Rocky Point, and you will find John Christian and his brother Glenn milking cows seven days a week – something they never envisioned themselves doing. Growing up in the city of Auckland, their upbringing was far removed from a traditional Norfolk Island lifestyle, and yet through cooking they embraced the culture from afar. Making cheese came about by default for John, as his family were not drinking the fresh cows’ milk provided by his father-in-law, and John hated seeing it go to waste. As a cheese lover with a microbiology and science background, John was keen to experiment. With some ingenuity and a lot of patience, John started to create his own cheese, eventually perfecting his techniques until his produce was reliably delicious. Local restaurants bought all they could, although John still wasn’t sure how this new hobby could become a profitable business in terms of his time and capacity to produce. Enter brother Glenn, who had just recently moved back to Norfolk Island. Having spent most of his working life behind a desk, Glenn saw the great potential in John’s local cheese and together the boys conceived a business plan.

These former city boys now revolve their days around milking and mustering times, making cheese daily to meet demand. A small investment of a milking machine helped the brothers to increase milk collection and restore their sanity, and now with five cows on the go, they are looking to increase their ‘herd’. But therein lies the beauty of the Christian brothers’ business plan. The boys have no immediate intention of importing dairy cattle, or even running cows on a property of their own. They are milking cattle reared for beef, using sustainable practices and adding to the income of the cattle owners. At 7am they separate the cows from their calves so that the milk can build up, then at 5pm the cows are milked, leaving the calves free to drink throughout the night. The calves have not slowed down their growth, meaning that cattle owners are making more money off the same animal and patch of land. Norfolk cattle produce milk with a high fat content, which translates into flavourful cheese – and even though they are humble beef cattle, John and Glenn are getting up to 2kg of cheese per 10L of milk, which is almost double what can normally be expected.

The boys are making their own feta, haloumi and cheddar, with future plans to make blues and camembert. The basic process involves bringing the milk to 69° for one minute to pasteurise, and then the milk is cooled before adding a bacterial culture that changes the properties of the milk. Rennet is then added to harden the mixture, which is then cut into cubes – the size of the cubes determining the water content of the cheese. After a short period, the whey is separated (which can be used to make ricotta), and then the remaining curd is placed in a mould and left to drain. All cheeses need salt at some point of production, with the processes being different depending on the type of cheese. Feta and haloumi are placed in brine and can be eaten the next day, whereas the cheddar needs to be regularly wiped with a solution and takes three months to mature. John and Glenn have set their sights on making 100kg of cheese per week, confident that whatever is made can be sold. They have been running a successful cheese tour for six months, and have been greatly encouraged by a professional food taster from Tasmania who claimed that the Christian brothers’ haloumi was the best he’d ever tasted.

The general consensus is that local milk could be Norfolk Island’s next big industry, creating not only fabulous products that can be exported worldwide, but also generating employment. For Emily, John and Glenn, they are happy to keep their businesses small and sustainable, though it may be difficult to keep such a wonderful idea from flourishing. It is known that animals kept from stress-free living circumstances are healthier and happier, and this flows down to the products that we consume. On Norfolk Island the air is clean, the earth is chemical-free, and the cattle and goats feed on great pasture – just one look into their eyes and you can see that stress is an almost laughable concept. Now, add some clever and hard-working locals to the mix, and you have the perfect recipe for success. At a risk of sounding cheesy, the grass is starting to look just that bit greener on Norfolk Island.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 04 Issue 02, 2014. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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