10 years ago, Claire and Malcolm Edward gave up city life in London to return to the rolling green hills of their hometown in the central North Island of New Zealand—population around 1500.
If you’ve ever travelled the North Island, you’ll know that it’s not short of a paddock or two, with a village here and there to service surrounding farms.
Such a village is Tahuna. Situated just under an hour's drive from Maui Milk’s world-class processing factory in Hamilton, Tahuna is home to Malcolm, Claire and their four young children, Hannah, Rebecca, Brooke and Marty.
It’s easy to see why Malcolm and Claire bought this farm, in this secluded location. At the bottom of the hill stands a milking shed that the pair have recently refurbished, and at the top, their house is situated boasting the most incredible views of farmland, peat lakes, rivers and mountain ranges.
The farms contour however means you can’t get a tractor over 80% of the land, so horticulture was out of the question. The previous owners had had dairy cows there, but that proved unsuccessful, likewise, dairy grazers weren't well suited to the land either. What they did notice was that the few wiltshire sheep they had were thriving—That’s when they first considered sheep dairy as a business.
Their research took the pair to several Maui Milk Supplier open days over the next year after which they decided to forge ahead. Malcolm had been introduced to Peter Gately and Jake Chardon, the founding genetics team who are largely responsible for the Southern Cross™ Dairy Sheep breed we have on Maui Milk supply farms today.
“I was impressed by the genetic improvements in dairy sheep Maui Milk were seeing with their breed back then, and I was intrigued by the opportunities for growth in the coming years, from animal wellness and environmental footprint to business operations.
The sheep milk industry suites this land and our family’s lifestyle.” says Malcolm.
Although the couple grew up on farms down the road, the only milking experience they had between them was the part-time jobs Malcolm had milking cows to help fund his way through university. Claire and Malcolm had a chuckle when they had to go to turn the machine on to milk their first ewe. There they were, said Malcolm. “We’d bought the farm, bought 700 Southern Cross™ Dairy Sheep, done the shed up, and now we had to do the mahi (work)”.
After one season of sheep milking, it’s been a positive experience for the Edward’s.
Lambs are lovingly hand-reared by Claire, with help from eldest daughter Rebecca who’s 9. Hand rearing the lambs ensures they are easy to handle, and easier to milk in the years to come. Having lots of family in New Zealand, the Edward’s nieces and nephews, of which there are around 20, chipped in and took a few lambs home to raise for a few months, bringing them swiftly back to the farm once they'd shown off their new pets at their school Agricultural Day (Ag day)!
“The lambs have a lovely temperament towards the family and their staff,” says Malcolm, who employs 1 full timer, 1 part timer and then anyone who wants to help during peak lambing season! Malcolm even tried to get Maui Milk’s Supplier Rep Gill to come round on the weekend as she lives in a cottage a little down the road, but she wasn’t keen. (laughs)
Claire said the learning curve was trying at times, particularly at a 10pm milking one night, however she loves working with the sheep, as she says they all have their own personalities and traits.
“Sheep milking is great for family and kids, because everyone is able to get involved,” says Claire. Last season, most days after school the oldest three Edward children who were 8, 5 and 3yrs old at the time helped their dad collect lambs out in the paddock. “We all had a good laugh and it was a lot of fun for the kids. They often managed to collect more lambs than me,” said Malcolm. The kids are also allowed to go into the shed with their dad, and Rebecca, now 9 yrs old and the eldest of the 4 children has learnt to teat spray and cup the sheep in preparation for milking.
Rebecca and Marty will often go with their dad on the farm, and during lambing they’re up most days at 7am to help mum feed the lambs before heading off to school. “I love rearing the lambs, they are so friendly and love to play. I like how some of them are black,” says Rebecca. Her pet lamb, a black and white fluffy lamb is named Jacket.
“The kids started drinking sheep milk from day 1,” says Malcolm. Brooke, the family's youngest child, just an infant at that stage enjoyed her morning feed of fresh sheep's milk so much that she unintentionally weened herself off her regular portions of food.
Something Claire and Malcolm realised once the ewes dried off in March, and Brooke started eating more solid food again. Claire said that although Brooke seemed to be eating a little less than usual during milking season, she maintained her usual healthy and energetic demeanor. “It made sense when you look at how lambs grow so rapidly on milk,” said Malcolm.
Sheep milk is a nutritious product that’s high in protein, lactoferrin and calcium and because it’s mild in flavour like cow’s milk, Claire uses sheep cream to make butter for her family. Unlike New Zealand butters made from cow’s milk, sheep milk butter is naturally snow white in appearance.
Claire uses her homemade sheep milk butter for cooking and baking with great success as we can attest to as we sat down for tea and cake during our visit.
The couple are optimistic about the upcoming season kicking off around the end of July, which will be their second as sheep milk suppliers for Maui Milk.
Having recently resigned from his other full-time job as an accountant in Hamilton, Malcolm says he is looking forward to spending his time with his family and putting all his efforts into the farm business. “Sheep milk and sheep milk powder is a premium, high quality product with impressive health benefits for young and old and it’s a good industry to be in,” says Malcolm.
Malcolm and Claire don’t intend to grow their animal numbers substantially, as the farm handles the current stock well, but he looks forward to the genetic improvements continuing in Maui Milk’s genetics programme utilising the Southern Cross Dairy Sheep breed.