Farmer Stories – Burke from Prom Country Cheese

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Burke from Prom County Cheese

“Stay calm”, I told myself, “it is only your cheesemaking-god in your kitchen, just try and act normal”. This is the internal monologue of Sally when we held our first Collective social gathering after our first delivery day.
We couldn’t believe our luck when Bronwyn and Burke wanted to come onboard the Collective, having been seeking out their cheese locally for our own table, it felt like a serious boon.
In addition to cheese, what Burke and Bronwyn provide is wise and measured advice; they’ve been selling direct longer than most of us, and can read the room. We need that.

Tell me about how you got into farming. How long have you been farming?
I have wanted to be a farmer since the age of 9 when my family moved to a bush block in the 80s. I developed a close connection to all living things, spending most of my time exploring, building, tending or growing something. We built our homestead from mud bricks and timber, grew or raised everything we could, and collected our weekly raw milk or meat from local farmers. We had a diverse orchard and veggie patch. I grew up with chickens, ducks, horses and dogs and going to Ag college was always in my plan.

What did you do before you were a farmer?
The only things I remember about living in Frankston is the adventures with pets we had. Once I got my hands in soil I was like a duck to water.

When was you’re a-ha moment, for wanting to farm?
My wife, Bronwyn joined my isolated existence in Western Victoria managing the traditional sheep and cattle runs. She changed from a career in the equine industry. My long held dream of running my own sheep station was sadly abandoned after 10 years working in an industry that had struggled with the collapse of the wool reserve price scheme. We realised we would never afford a viable farm as everyone told us we needed a minimum of 10,000 sheep, run hard on almost as many acres to make a crust.
It wasn’t until we left farming with a handful of sheep, to join my parent’s cheese business, that we realised that we could make it work by value-adding to the produce from a small farm. I’d been learning cheesemaking for 4 years when in 2006 we had a ewe loose her lamb. In a light-bulb moment Bronwyn decided to milk the ewe, so tied her up with a collar and hand milked the sheep on her knees on the ground. From that first litre of milk, I was so astounded by the quality of milk for cheesemaking, that it really got us thinking. Within a year, we had bought a milking breed ram, built a 4x4m dairy, and started milking a dozen ewes on our 9 acre hobby farm. With the popularity of the single pecorino cheese we were making, we quickly tripled our herd, but the whole setup was too small, intensive and inefficient. After 3 years or trialling recipes and developing a market, we knew we had to either pack it all in or buy our first real farm. After hunting all over Victoria, we finally recognised this green oasis in the hills of South Gippsland as the best place on earth to grow our herd. On almost 200 acres, our 30 sheep grew to a sustainable 400, and our product range diversified to a more seasonal approach that would ensure we had some sort of cheese all year round.

What makes your product different, from say, a supermarket product?
Cheeses made for supermarkets need to always be the same and sit on the shelf with a long best before date. We could never compete with the efficiency of an industrial mass-produced product, so we specialise in traditional cheeses that not only taste amazing but can be a visual centrepiece on a platter, and have an interesting story of their origin. They are a unique expression of our farm environment and a given season of the year. Everything is crafted by hand to hopefully create a memorable experience for the end consumer. We not only make it but also nurture it to peak ripeness through its maturation. Both my father and I have worked and studied cheesemaking in Europe and UK, so we’ve been influenced by their age old techniques and respect for milk.

Farming influences? Who’s your farming hero?
We rode the wave of conventional farming, including some highly productive and progressive and environmentally conscious farms. However it was not until we had our own farm that we really started questioning everything we had been force-fed, and started practicing and experimenting with regenerative farming. A more natural approach without chemicals now makes complete sense to us. We are mostly influenced by our local Landcare network, with communal access to advisors and other farmers with healthy farm ecosystems. The facilitators are really leading the way with our on-going education. Over 15 years of sourcing organic milk from grass roots gurus Ron & Bev Smith in Fish Creek, we have picked up a lot of tips over many chats at the milk vat!

What’s a standard day on the farm for you?
Milking and our responsibility for the animals keeps us in a certain seasonal routine almost every day of the year. We work together in every aspect of the business, often passing (or juggling) the baton to keep our 3 enterprises running in parallel. Currently through our peak Spring season, we get the ewes in for milking shortly after dawn. We’re in the dairy for about 3 hours. We usually finish up sorting out odd sheep, cleaning the dairy, feeding and doing essential farm jobs by about midday. I move a temporary fence for the sheep every day so they always have access to fresh but rationed pasture. Depending what cheese work is a priority each day, one of us will change boots and hat earlier to get things started at the cheesery, 100m from our dairy. Most of our cheesemaking or packaging is in the afternoon, as by 5pm we’re back in the dairy for evening milking. Nights after dinner are for unfinished affinage in the cheese cellars, answering messages or packing for next morning Prom Coast Food Collective orders! Leaving the farm is difficult, which is why we are mostly home-based. Around Christmas we change to milking only in the morning, then in late Autumn stop milking for 3 months, to let the ewes, pastures and ourselves rest and prepare for birthing again in winter.

For people wanting to get into farming, what’s your key advice?
Farm to your land’s sustainable capacity, not to a figure per hectare that you need to make it pay. If the farm’s income isn’t enough, do something else, not push the system harder. Chemical inputs have a short term result, but give a false sense of production as the soil becomes reliant on them at the expense of soil biology which when healthy provides most of what plants need. Also know your market, or create one! Don’t be confined by traditional methods of farming or selling. Make a personal connection with your customers.

How did you hear about the Prom Coast Food Collective? Has it helped?
We already following Colin & Sally’s Organic Farm on social media and saw a post about expressions of interest for a Prom region food collective in the concept stage. We sent a message asking if this was something we needed to be involved in. Despite having our own farm shop, the Collective enabled us to access customers further afield, and helped us drop farmers markets which became increasingly difficult for us to attend. Through Covid it has also helped get produce to people who can’t visit us anymore.

If you could impart one piece of knowledge to your customer base, about cooking with your product, what would it be?
Try our cheese without cooking first! While a little bit of flavorsome cheese can add a special something to a dish, melting homogenises a cheese that might already have some interesting layers to its texture profile.

What’s one thing that we might not know about you, outside of farming?
Music helped me save for my first ute and then first farm. From an early age I played fiddle in bush, folk and Irish bands, and busked at farmer’s markets. Now farming pays for itself and I play for relaxation after work, or occasionally join a group. Bronwyn accompanies me sometimes on flute or piano.

Favourite farming book?
I read enough farming books at college to last me a lifetime. These days I learn from all sources of media like newsletters or groups, but prefer practice and observation. I’m usually too tired to read at night anyway!

Favourite non-farming book?
Land of the Lyrebird. I love the history of what the great forest was like when settlers came to our hills. In our time here we hope to play a small part towards eventually returning parts of our land to how it should be. Some species might be extinct, but a lot of flora and fauna are now returning to our revegetation areas after 120 years.

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