DIVERSIFICATION was the best thing I ever did, says Johnny Lynch of the award-winning Macroom Mozzarella.
He’s about to launch two new cheese products into shops this month, a Greek-style cheese and an Halloumi, while the meat side of his business is also rapidly expanding. A blue cheese is also being looked at, as well as creating greater production capacity to keep up with demand.
But the 50-year-old honestly reveals that the future didn’t always look so bright after his radical diversification, and many times in the early years he hugely regretted his decision when he was losing money and also battling bowel cancer.
Like so many other men in West Cork, he started out on his family farm, aged 16, milking a dairy herd of 50. But by 2009, mainly due to the price of milk, he admits he was barely getting by.
‘I knew we had to make a switch – not just for ourselves but for the next generation,’ said the father of three.
He was aware of lots of other cheese makers making a go of it throughout West Cork, but knew he’d have to try a different angle – which is where the mozzarella idea came from.
Despite everyone, from friends to Teagasc advisors cautioning against it, he wouldn’t be swayed. He first went to the UK to look at a herd and later imported 30 cattle from Northern Italy at a cost, and he remembers it exactly, €52,600.
An in-calf heifer costs €3,000; a maiden heifer €2,000 and a calf €1,000.
‘I bought 20 maiden heifers, 10 calves and a bull. That was October 2009, and we started making cheese in 2011,’ he explained.
Selling the milk quota and cattle helped to finance the herd and additional infrastructure costs of around €50,000 for things like strengthening works to the existing parlour, stronger gates and fences, etc.
Initially Johnny went into partnership with someone in the locality.
That arrangement saw the cheese being made on a nearby farm by cheese expert Sean Ferry from Schull.
‘He has 35 years’ experience making cheese – he has been doing it since he was 12,’ said Johnny.
‘Then in 2015 we went out on our own. That required another half a million investment into a unit on our farm where Sean and two others worked from.’
An approach from Aldi (followed by the now infamous TV ad!) and other multiples marked the significant turning point in his fortunes and brought the business ‘to a whole new level.’
‘We went from making 500 kilos of cheese a week to 2,000 a week. We’ve now two milking herds of 400, mainly Irish-bred. And we employ a team of 15 – 12 in the plant and three on the farm.’
‘We’ve had a lot of support from Udaras na Gaeltachta in terms of employment and building grants and have a great relationship with them.’
Regarding the future, a need for a second unit is now very much under consideration with Halloumi and the Greek-style cheese moving into shops at the start of this month where they’ll join the award-winning mozzarella and ricotta.
This past winter they experimented with a blue cheese, which has gone down well at farmers’ markets, but a separate unit entirely is needed for this, which – he says – they’ll have to do their ‘sums on.’
Their buffalo meat products are slightly less known, but are growing in popularity and they’re now selling around four animals a month.
‘We’ve been calving cows since 2011, and males must go for slaughter as you can’t take animals with horns to the mart, so it’s the only option. They’re slaughtered in Cork and cut and prepared by Twomey’s in Macroom into things like mince and burgers. They’re low in calories and fat and very high in iron.’
They’re available on menus throughout West Cork and in other outlets such as Organico, Bantry; Drinagh Co-Op in Skibbereen and Scally’s SuperValu Clonakilty, where Johnny credits owner Eugene as being a huge support.
Interestingly, buffalo meat is very popular among Ireland’s Indian community, especially around Clonmel.
Outside of all that, they host Buffalo Farm Tours in association with Dorothy Ó Tuama of Lee Valley Taste Trails.
She’s a Fáilte Ireland tour guide and has been giving tours on Johnny’s farm since 2016 to visitors from the likes of Russia, China, Mexico, US and Europe, as well as school trips.
From now on, Johnny says they’ll be hosting an average of two tours a week.
Smack in the middle of the initial struggle in 2013, when money was being lost, and as he said himself things ‘were shockingly tough’ Johnny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
He has recovered, but says that, like many after cancer, ‘you never go back to how you were.’
‘I’ve regular check-ups and you would be fearful in the run-up to them and on edge. You’ll always have health issues but you learn to live with that.’
On a positive and extremely unusual note, just recently, they welcomed healthy twin bull and heifer buffalo calves.
‘There’s a one in 10,000 chance of this happening and what makes it more unusual is that it’s our second set. We had another back in 2014.’
Johnny has a real affection for his buffalos, which he says are more like dogs in that they’re very intelligent with lots of them answering by name when called.
However, just like cows they need to be milked twice a day. They produce less milk, but it’s more valuable.
‘We have two people who come here for it who can’t have dairy milk. We don’t sell it yet – but anything is possible!’
• Buffalo Farm Tours are holding an open morning on the farm on May 11th from 11am to 12.30pm. For more information and booking, see leevalleytastetrails.ie