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It was pretty clear a shift in direction was required. Kel Grey had spent six years away from Kiama “seeing the world”, but he returned to a family business in desperate need of change.
“The farm was in pretty dire straits. Deregulation had hit the industry in Australia during that period,” he recalls.
“So I came back and worked for about three years, full time on the farm, to the point where the writing was on the wall. It was sell up or do something. That’s where I came up with a plan to value-add.”
Kel has kept the The Pines going by making big changes along the way. He’s downsized his dairy farming operation. And there’s a little processing room on the farm they use to make gelato that’s sold in stores in and around Kiama.
Now he’s ready to take things a step further. The man has big dreams of being a cheesemaker.
“We’re dabbling at the moment, but I’m using my milk pasteuriser, my gelato pasteuriser to make cheese. In three years I’d like to see one, maybe two cheeses coming from our business that are amazing,” he says.
That’s Kel’s three year goal. And in five years he wants to be selling his cheeses from the farm, with a cellar door setup that can bring consumers directly to The Pines.
That ambitious mentality is one of the main reasons he entered RedZed’s Meet The Master competition. And why he nominated UK dairy farmer and cheesemaker Jonny Crickmore as his hero – a kindred spirit who’s been there before and who has proved how well embracing change can work.
“It’s exciting to do something different. I’m that mentality though, I like different. I need[ed] to learn from Johnny because of how well Fen Farm have done it,” Kel explains.
“They’re generational farmers who [moved] into making their own products and have done it exceptionally well. They seem to have hit all the right notes. And we’d like to follow suit back home.”
Like Kel, dairy has been in Jonny Crickmore’s blood for generations. He started following his dad around Fen Farm at the age of four, learning the ropes. And now he and his family have pushed the business in the directions Kel is keen for The Pines to head.
But because he’s having been there before, he’s mindful of the challenges Kel will have in store.
“It’s quite scary. All of a sudden, we’re not spending money on a tractor or putting a shed up or something. We’re spending it on something totally different and getting out of our comfort zone,” Crickmore says.
“We tried a little something and saw a gain from it and a benefit. And that gave us the confidence to go with the cheese.”
Going “with the cheese” has reaped big rewards, too. It’s won awards. It’s sold at high-end London department store Selfridges. One of Crickmore’s batches was even part of Prince Harry’s wedding day breakfast. And it’s brought a bloke from Kiama halfway round the world to learn some tricks of the trade.
But Crickmore’s success hasn’t come without a shedload of investment and work.
“It was probably about three years, I think, from the first time we made cheese to kind of getting a consistently good product,” he recalls.
“It’s no different than being a world famous tennis player, is it? Those guys don’t become world famous from just being naturally good, they have to work bloody hard at it and keep doing it all the time.”
So does heading to England to learn from Jonny have Kel ready to put in the long, long hours it will take to become a world famous tennis player… err, commercial cheesemaker? And to keep adding value to his business no matter the cost?
“I think it’s given me that boost in the arm to say ‘let’s have a go’. It might not happen exactly the way we want it to, but we’ll make it happen anyway and it’s exciting,” he reflects.
“I know I can do it. I’ve seen it done here. We might be on a smaller scale back home, but we can do it.”