With 30 million sheep across the country, why is it that New Zealanders find the idea of milking them bizarre?
Massey lecturer Craig Prichard is on a mission to promote sheep dairy as a viable form of agribusiness in New Zealand. “People from eastern and southern Europe take this as normal. I think that if New Zealand had been settled by southern Europeans rather than northern Europeans we would have had a sheep dairy industry from the beginning.”
Recently the concept of milking sheep has caught the attention of large agribusiness company, Landcorp. The state-owned enterprise purchased 2,500 East Friesian sheep last year for trial milking. It has also engaged Massey’s Riddet Institute in experimenting with sheep’s milk products such as butter and ice cream and is in discussion with FoodHQ, a collective of New Zealand’s foremost food science organisations. “We’re a lot more experimental in what we’re eating,” believes Craig, “therefore we can be more experimental with what we can potentially sell to people.”
There are a lot of lifestyle blocks on the fringes of New Zealand cities. I’d like to see us make better use of that land
Craig belongs to a group of Massey researchers called Ewe Can Dairy who support the New Zealand sheep dairy industry. In February the team ran the Ewe Milk Products and Sheep Dairying Conference. “It’s part of trying to think through issues around alternative dairy industries,” explains Craig.
Craig isn’t just watching the industry’s development from the sidelines. “I milk sheep myself in a very rustic, low-budget, low-impact way,” he says.
“It’s important to understand the business at grassroots level. There’s a lot of knowledge that comes from day-to-day milking and getting involved with the sheep.”
Craig’s lifestyle block exemplifies an alternative business model for New Zealand dairy practices. “There are a lot of lifestyle blocks on the fringes of New Zealand cities. They mow them and might have a few raggedy old sheep.
We’re a lot more experimental in what we’re eating
I’d like to see us make better use of that land.” He proposes that a sheep dairy business could involve a number of small holders getting together with small flocks, which could be milked collectively.
“The challenge is to find business models that connect people to the industries. Maybe some aspects of fair and equitable trade might find their way into this kind of business. There are lots of things you can do on a small scale by connecting people to the products they consume.”
As for the taste of sheep’s milk – “It was the biggest challenge to get my twelve-year-old son to eat some sheep’s milk products,” says Craig. “It’s that little reaction where people go, ‘I’m not really sure about that’. We need to attach meanings to sheep’s milk products that are positive for the industry.” Sheep’s milk has a similar flavour to cow’s milk, only much richer. With the increase in dairy product varieties in supermarkets, sheep’s milk could easily make the shelves.