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The leap from farming to cheese

The leap from farming to cheese

September 06, 2017

Bob and his wife Sue Berry, founders of Whitestone Cheese.

The Berry family's journey from farming to specialty cheese began in 1987.

Such a leap was triggered by a huge upheaval in our rural communities. In 1984 all farming subsidies were removed, product prices halved and interest rates ballooned to 23-24%.

When Rob Muldoon was voted out Roger Douglas and Labour inherited a broken economy. ‘Rogernomics’ and the ‘free economy’ were born, which crippled our rural communities resulting in many farmers leaving the land and numerous farmer suicides.

In our case, North Otago had the added challenge of crippling droughts. We had a pretty large farming operation, which included a high country run and two down land properties. I decided the former could stay as it was, while the down country farms would be used for cropping and stock trading.

While traditional farming was kneecapped there was one shining light. Merino wool. It was booming, particularly with the live sheep trade to Saudi Arabia. This is around the time I switched to live stock trading. Ultimately though, I wanted to be a price maker, not a price taker, so one day while on the tractor I put my thinking cap on and came up with the idea of specialty cheese, nobody was doing it.

The wine industry in Central Otago was in its infancy. And what goes with wine? Cheese.

Life’s about connections and I had a good one with Colin Dennison from Evansdale. He owned a dairy cow and had been making cheeses in his kitchen.

So we got together. That’s how it started.

Was the new business venture scary? Not really, for us it was just another project in the bottom paddock. We didn’t invest a whole lot. I remember paying a visit to my friendly family bank manager George at BNZ, before they went broke. I told him I wanted to start a cheese factory. He replied, ‘Cheese? Good idea. How much do you need?’ I told him 10K should do the trick. George said, ‘Away you go.’

So away we went!

Soon after we leased a garage, lined it, bought a vat, and hired Wolfgang, a German chef. Colin showed him the rudiments of crafting a good cheese, though we quickly realized we’d have to extend our range to achieve economies of scale, which would prove to be a pretty long haul.

I’ll never forget our first customers, three farmers from North Canterbury who flew in on their own planes. They and their wives had just walked the Milford Track, but huge rains forced them to land in a paddock next to us. They stayed with us for three days and became our first customers, one of whom became a distributor!

During this stage of the business I kept farming, though a breakthrough for Whitestone Cheese came about thanks to the newly released brick cell phone. Remember those? Having a mobile meant I could be out in the truck and still be in touch with supermarket girls, agents, and be able to make appointments with managers and supervisors.

Charles Darwin once said, ‘In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.’ I think my own transition from farming to cheese was largely thanks to my background. At the age of 19 I was on the road as a stock agent, visiting farmer clients in my Mark II Zephyr. I was thrown in the deep end and learnt very quickly the business of selling yourself.

People must have confidence in you. This thinking has extended to our adventures at Whitestone. We’re not just in the cheese business; we're in the people business.

During those trying days of 1987 many other farmers left their trade and created some very successful enterprises. Us? We stuck with cheese. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, especially when the BNZ went broke and my friendly bank manager George was put out to pasture. Before the paint was dry a hitman was sent in to clean up any bad accounts.

I think he was dazzled by our ‘strong’ stock trading cash flow. The cheese dream continued.

Since its humble beginnings it’s always been my job to run the ship and market our products. These days my son Simon does a great job, continuing to attract great people, including our team of very skilled cheesemakers.

Over the years we’ve developed our recipes in-house and we’ve kept true to them. Every batch of cheese is a separate creation, you have to put love and care into it with no deviations from the master recipe.

What next? We want Whitestone to become the best specialist cheese maker in the country. We’re on the right track. We have fantastic staff that create a world class product and I am just so proud of them, I really am.

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