Big cheese: Teagasc and Bord Bia bid to boost artisan sector
Cheese Institute initiative aims to double sector output from €19 million annually
The Cheese Institute aims to help the Irish farmhouse cheese sector fulfil its potential at home and abroad. Photograph: Dave Meehan.
An initiative by Teagasc and Bord Bia is aimed at assisting the Irish farmhouse cheese sector fulfil its potential for growth on the home and export markets.
The organisations have joined forces to form the Cheese Institute, which aims to deliver a series of targeted training and development programmes to the industry.
According to Bord Bia, the €19 million sector is running at just 40 per cent of capacity and the institute’s programmes could see a doubling of output in the coming years.
The initiative came about as a result of research carried out by Bord Bia in 2013 which identified underutilised capacity in the industry, as well as some of the barriers to growth faced by producers.
“The research identified a need for training in both the technical aspects of cheesemaking as well as in business development,” says Eimear O’Donnell, sector manager for consumer dairy with Bord Bia.
“For example, if a company has a product that sells well locally they don’t have to think about how well it will cope with extended shipping times to markets like the US.
“But while it is fabulous to develop a new cheese product, you still have to know who will buy it and how to sell it to them.”
Bord Bia approached Teagasc with a view to creating a series of training and development programmes which would meet the needs of the sector.
“Teagasc brought the technical expertise and we brought the business and marketing knowledge.”
The result was the establishment of the Cheese Institute and the development of three programmes: starter, fundamentals and advanced.
The starter programme is a Fetac-accredited introductory programme about farmhouse cheese production. It provides new cheesemakers with information about farmhouse cheese production, marketing and consumer behaviour, as well as about competency in building and maintaining and trade business.
Twelve established producers have just completed the pilot fundamentals programme.
Designed in partnership with industry, and delivered by Bord Bia and Teagasc, the programme consists of a series of workshops delivered over 10 months.
Each workshop includes a number of specialists and addresses topics such as cheese production and ripening, controlling cheese yield, batch variability, whey utilisation, food safety and hygiene, as well as marketing planning, pricing and negotiations, business planning, key account management, the consumer and market, digital content creation and management.
“Irish farmhouse cheese production has great potential to expand and, based on its positive image abroad, opportunities for exports are strong,” says Teagasc senior researcher Diarmuid Sheehan.
“Cheese offers high-end use versatility with potential for significant added value. Cheese Institute Fundamentals gives us the opportunity to focus on the development of the necessary skill set and expertise required by the industry.
“We are delighted with the opportunity to address key hurdles from quality to consistency and through to expansion in the sector.
“This is a long-term training support which provides a great opportunity to leverage the available Teagasc expertise and the expertise available overseas through our international linkages.”
The Teagasc Food Research Centre at Moorepark in Fermoy, Co Cork, is acknowledged as an international leader in cheese research and Teagasc’s contribution to the Cheese Institute includes its expertise in science and technology which underpins all aspects of cheese manufacturing and ripening, as well as achieving consistent quality.
The organisation also brings the skills to create new cheeses and diversify existing ranges.
Key technical areas Teagasc has addressed within the fundamentals course include food safety and quality systems; cheese manufacturing including areas such as starter technology, milk coagulation, curd handling, salting and brining and working with seasonal changes in milk; cheese ripening, including key biochemical and microbial agents which influence ripening; and the identification of the key quality indices of a product including factors influencing shelf life and flavour development.
The course featured contributions from 10 speakers with technical expertise in the area from within Teagasc. In addition, Teagasc invited six international contributors from the US, UK and the Netherlands.
Technical sessions were both lecture-based and practical, held at Moorepark and off-site at a producer’s premises.
“The Cheese Institute initiative is aimed at helping the sector realise its potential,” Sheehan adds.
“There has been phenomenal growth in cheese production in Ireland since the 1990s with output increasing from 80,000 tonnes to 205,000 tonnes annually. This upward trend is continuing with the end of the milk quota regime. But what we haven’t had is a tradition of artisan or speciality cheese production.”
This is changing, however, and a small but growing group of speciality farmhouse cheese producers are building international reputations.
“There is huge export potential and great potential for additional value,” Sheehan notes.
“It’s at the other end of the extreme from high volume commodity cheddar production.”
The institute’s next phase will commence in the coming months with a focus on exporting.
The advanced programme has been designed to support companies with the potential to scale their businesses. It will consist of a series of workshops, as well as one-to-one mentoring on technical and marketing issues.