How the summer drought brought a sheep dairy company to its knees

  • 12/04/2019

Alice Neville writing for The Spinoff

Despite being in its infancy, Thorvald had won multiple awards and could barely keep up with demand for its sheep's milk cheese and yoghurt. But Tasman’s devastating drought has effectively put the company out of business. 

For many, particularly those geographically and socially removed from rural life, it was hard to come to grips with the severity of the Tasman drought. The fires it sparked in February hit home for everyone, of course – there's something about the unequivocally devastating nature of fire that provokes empathy from the coldest of hearts. But what about the more far-reaching, less immediate impacts?

For David Barrett, the drought has pushed his sheep dairy company Thorvald to the brink. Based in Neudorf Valley in Upper Moutere, near Nelson, the young business was still recovering from the drought of late 2017 when this year's unprecedented dry took hold.

Stark evidence of the drought's effects at a farm in Taparewa, neat Upper Moutere
Stark evidence of the drought's effects at a farm in Taparewa, neat Upper Moutere Photo credit: The Spinoff/RNZ

"We were looking forward to a really good 2018-2019 spring-summer period," says Barrett, whose company takes its name from his father's middle name. "And sure, sheep numbers were up, milk volumes were up in October, November and December, and even January wasn't too bad.

"But by the end of January it was starting to get pretty dry and then the milk volumes absolutely plummeted through February to the point where last week we were only milking several hundred sheep and getting virtually nothing," he said in early March.

"We'd run out of all the feed we'd stockpiled and even on the balage, the milk volumes weren’t high. When you've run out of feed before the end of February, and you're thinking I've got to spend thousands of dollars on more feed to get a tiny bit of milk, it just doesn’t make commercial sense."

"And being a fairly new company, it was pretty difficult to keep going."

Thorvald produces yoghurt and a range of cheeses from the milk of a herd of Awassi and East Friesian sheep tended by shepherd Julie Brownlee. "We have a joint arrangement with Julie, who owns the sheep and leases the farm, and we have the milking shed, milking equipment and all the cheesemaking facilities," explains Barrett. "We're business partners in every sense of the word except legally. We’re very interdependent."

Thorvald is based in the once-lush Neudorf Valley in Upper Moutere.
Thorvald is based in the once-lush Neudorf Valley in Upper Moutere. Photo credit: Nikki Prokop

They had been building up sheep numbers, reaching a peak of around 1500 in recent months. As they attempt to milk year-round, new groups of sheep are brought in and out of rotation throughout the year. But the drought eventually forced Brownlee to retrench and sell off part of the herd.

"I guess it's a down-and-not-out situation for us, really, but it probably means a real break in our production of sheep milk for at least a year, probably two years," says Barrett.

He estimates he's invested close to a million dollars in milking and cheesemaking equipment, brand development and marketing. "It’s pretty heart-wrenching," he says. "It’s pretty tough. Using my father's name has made it that little bit harder, but our full intention is to be back."

"We've obviously invested a lot of time and money in the last four years and learnt an awful lot, but there's no doubt that two droughts in 15 months have devastated us. We just haven’t been able to get that continuity of supply to establish a market."

There's certainly no lack of demand, however. New World supermarkets in the South Island had been selling Thorvald yoghurt and some cheeses, which won multiple gold medals in the NZ Champion of Cheeses Awards in 2018 as well as in the recently announced 2019 awards.

Thorvald's range of sheep's milk cheeses.
Thorvald's range of sheep's milk cheeses. Photo credit: Nikki Prokop

But for the immediate future, at least, Barrett is turning his attention to his cow's milk cheese company, Little River Estate, which uses milk from Nelson A2 herd Oaklands.

"Even their milk supplies have been affected by the drought," he says. "You don’t think of cow's milk being affected but if you're not going to feed palm kernel, you’re not going to take short cuts, then that affects it as well."

The flow-on effects are huge, he says. "It has an impact on customers with lack of supply, and on the other side there's all the people who supply us – we don't need to buy packaging because we're not using it, we don’t need to book freight because we haven't got a product.

"You hear about instant hardship that people have following things like fires, but with things like the drought, they have that slow creep and you have to adapt as you go along."

It's certainly the worst drought the region has seen since 2001, and many, including Barrett, believe it to be more severe. Tasman District Council resource scientist Joseph Thomas told Stuff that just 8.8mm of rain fell on the Waimea Plains in January and February, making them the driest two months since records began 78 years ago.

Fires burnt across the tinder-dry Tasman District in February.
Fires burnt across the tinder-dry Tasman District in February. Photo credit: Getty

While March has seen some rain, prompting Tasman District Council and Nelson City Council to relax some water restrictions, the damage has been done for many farmers and growers. In February, Tasman district mayor Richard Kempthorne said the cost to the economy had been assessed at in excess of $100 million.

"If it’s not the worst drought in Nelson's recorded history, it would have to be among the worst," says Barrett. "We’re going to have to adjust. There are obviously drier areas of the world, in California and Australia, for example, that have adapted. I guess it's just going through this change as quickly as we are – I can only assume it's an aspect of global warming."

"We've got to face the fact that this perhaps is the new norm for us. I don't know if we're going to have a two- or three-month dry spell, 30-plus temperatures and high winds every year now, but it certainly feels that way when you consider that some of the hottest temperatures we've had in the last 100 years have been in the last 10.

"So we’re going to have to figure out how we're going to adapt. Nowhere else in the country that I know of – and possibly on the planet – tries to milk sheep 12 months of the year, and maybe there's a really good reason for that," he laughs. "But that said, I still think it's possible and there's still a demand for it, but maybe we needed to go in with a heck of a lot more money than we did."

"We're not the only ones hurting. There are contractors who haven't been able to do any work – all sorts of contractors from farmers to landscape gardeners – so the impact is being felt widely from all angles, from really small to really big companies. Every single one will be feeling it."

The Spinoff.