Though she is running a large dairy farm and cheesery, Julie Cameron can’t resist rescuing a lost lamb. Driving her daughter to school recently, she saw a lamb struggling in the long grass, having lost its mother. Hand feeding the little orphan is another job that will be fitted into Julie’s busy days.
Julie and her husband, Sandy, are farmers, custodians of the land and successful business owners. The Camerons started Meredith Dairy in 1992 after the wool industry collapsed and they had to reinvent their farm near Bannockburn to survive.
They prospered by transforming their land into a sheep and goat dairy farm. Julie says: “When they say success happens overnight, it doesn’t. It takes at least five years.”
Best known for its luscious marinated feta in a jar, Meredith Dairy now produces eight sheep and goat cheeses.
Cheese making secrets
The Camerons will leave their farm to reveal some of the secrets of cheesemaking as part of the exciting Urban Dairy that the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (MFWF) will set up in the CBD in March.
The Urban Dairy will be the hub of the festival, now in its 24th year. MFWF is Melbourne’s original food festival, a not-for-profit venture run by locals for locals and it’s extremely important for Victorian producers such as the Camerons.
Visitors to the Urban Dairy in Queensbridge Square will learn how cheesemakers separate the curds from the whey and how to make simple fresh cheese.
“The most consumed cheese in the world is fresh cheese so I want people to think about soft cheeses such as chevre, bocconcini, buffalo mozzarella and marinated cheeses and how versatile they can be,” Julie says.
Road to success
The Camerons’ road to successful cheesemaking was a long and hard one. At first they were milking sheep that were bred for wool and getting tiny amounts of milk. By careful selection of sheep and importing two expensive rams, they created a suitable milking flock and increased production more than tenfold.
Sandy is no ordinary farmer. He’s a qualified vet who specialises in out-of-season breeding. Using various techniques he manages to get milk from their flocks all year round.
One of the first things the couple did was to seek advice from cheesemaking expert Richard Thomas. It wasn’t long before their first cheese, Meredith Blue, was winning awards. During the mid ’90s they realised they couldn’t compete with imported cheeses and began to concentrate on producing fresh goats cheese.
Julie says she would never return to those early days where the couple had two small children.
She worked nights until 2am making cheese and as she came home to bed her husband would get up for the early morning milking session. It was five years before they could employ some help and take time off.
The real deal
Now Meredith Dairy stretches over 1600 hectares with 1200-1500 sheep and 7000 goats. It incorporates four dairies and a cheese factory and employs 100 people. It’s the largest sheep and goat dairy enterprise in Australia. The cheese factory is next door to one of the dairies and a 5000-litre tanker picks up the rest of the milk every day. Milk collected in the morning is processed that day to ensure freshness.
“It’s an unwritten rule that we process every day. Our cheese is made from really fresh milk so it doesn’t have a strong goat flavour.”
Meredith also produces a sheep’s yoghurt, made in the traditional Greek way. “The yoghurts that we are eating today aren’t true yoghurts; they’re more like a dairy dessert but the pot-set sheep milk yoghurt is the real deal.”
The quality of Meredith marinated goat cheese has also improved over the years, Julie says. Fresh Australian extra virgin olive oil is now available in bulk from Boundary Bend so the marinade is superior.
Sustainability is high on the agenda. The Camerons believe they need to take care of the land for the next generation. About 16 per cent of the farm is kept out of production, all buildings are timber and they plant trees to offset carbon emissions.
The business is a family affair. Their son, Angus, is involved in marketing while Sandy’s father, Neil, 86, still helps out around the farm. But cheesemaking isn’t all romance, Julie says. It’s 10 per cent cheesemaking, 10 per cent cheese handling and 80 per cent cleaning. Hygiene is essential and the Camerons train science graduates to make their cheeses.
Julie says: “The challenge is the farming side, trying to get milk everyday from animals, and doing that in a way that is sustainable.”
The Camerons remain passionate farmers, determined to nurture their cheese-making business so that it will sustain the next generation, keep locals employed and have a minimal impact on the environment.
Julie believes the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is as important for local producers as it is for the hospitality industry.
“It’s great when you see regional districts doing the long lunch and using the produce from those districts.”