Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where PECORA DAIRY, Robertson, NEW SOUTH WALES
Spring in all it's glory is well underway at Pecora Dairy in Robertson, in the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales. Delicate blossoms adorn the trees and the landscape is teeming with wildlife, birds and insects.
For sheep-dairy farmers Cressida and Michael McNamara, this is a favourite time of the year. With the Spring lambs freshly weaned, the milk from their ewes is flowing and their days are filled with making their on-farm artisan cheeses and yogurts.
Named after the Italian word for sheep, Pecora is a 230 acre property ideal for grazing animals with a high rainfall and cool climate resulting in rich, lush pastures.
The family, which includes the couple's young sons Hugo (13) and Darcy (11), breed and care for close to 170 sheep on their property.
‘Our flock is Australia's only working, pure East Friesian ewes, the most productive breed of dairy sheep in the world. They're also incredibly beautiful, generous creatures - intelligent and funny, and a real delight to work with. We just adore them,’ smiles Cressida.
The care of their animals underpins everything Michael and Cressida do at the farm, with the ethical treatment of their ewes considered of utmost importance.
‘For us, treating our animals with respect and gentleness is a no-brainer. We love what we do. Our girls trust us to look after them and they come willingly into the dairy every day.’
‘Over the years, I've even had several ewes walk back to the paddock closest to the house to come and seek me out for assistance because they were having trouble lambing.’
The couple, who came late to farming, made their move from city to country after Michael was offered a redundancy from his property market analyst role in Sydney several years ago.
‘We were looking for a different lifestyle, something where we could work together rather than apart, and where life would feel a little less hectic.’
A shared background in the wine industry, coupled with a love of the science of food and agriculture led them to explore the possibilities of sheep dairying.
Having no background in farming, the couple found themselves learning many things 'from scratch'.
‘Most of our skills in caring for the sheep came from research conducted in Europe and from our years spent looking after them here on the farm. They are beautiful, but do require specialist skills to help them produce well. Sheep dairying is not just like milking cows on a smaller scale. Most of the systems we have, we’ve designed here ourselves.’
The couple custom-built their on-farm cheesery and are proud of the fact that they are able to milk their ewes just metres from where they make their cheese.
Cressida believes there is a growing interest from the public about where their food comes from and that any chef worth their salt is using fresh, local produce.
‘The rise of farmers markets show that people want fresh local produce, they want to support the farmers directly and know their story.’
Despite regularly selling-out of their product, their aspirations do not include massive growth. ‘We want to remain a boutique, specialised farm business and have no interest in becoming too commercialised,’ says Cressida.
Michael and Cressida feel it’s imperative to maintain control over all aspects of their business, from lambing to cheese-making to selling, so that they can connect directly with customers and ensure they continue to produce a sustainable, ethical product.
‘There’s an increasing respect for the animals, the land, and for the farmers who are genuinely trying to produce a quality product as gently and ethically as possible. The good chefs understand that food is seasonal and that they will have to wait for our fresh curd over early winter until the ewes lamb because there is simply no milk.’
‘I genuinely think the future of farming in this country is exciting. There have been significant advancements in technology for agriculture which will allow farmers to make more targeted and informed decisions. There is an increase of farmers on small blocks of land, growing a diverse range of products specifically to sell to their local area. I think it's a dynamic time to be involved in farming in Australia.’