Murray is passionate about his work and about his large extended family - in fact it is difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins. Murray's daughter, Dedrie, son-in-law, Mario (Mars), his wife, Joyce, and his mother-in-law, May, all work in the family enterprise. And during the last school holidays his grand-daughter, Shannon, also worked at Verona Farm; four generations of women from the same family working side by side turning organic milk into widely sought after organic dairy products - butter, cream, cream cheese, sour cream, cheddar, cottage cheese, gouda, yoghurt cheese, feta, quark, and acidophilous and Bulgarian yoghurt.
A strong philosophy of respect and equality governs not only the management of the manufacturing side of the business, but underpins years of organic and biodynamic farm management practices at Merriway Stud, suppliers of milk for the Verona Farm label.
A Tale of Two Farms
Behind the Verona Farm label is a tale of two farms: Verona Farm at Waitoki and Merriway Stud, about 30 kilometres away near Glorit on the eastern shore of the historic Kaipara Harbour. Nearly half a century ago, dairy farmer Tom Stevens started out in organic farm management while looking for a cure for bloat. After reading about the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, he came to believe that if the soil was healthy, the grass would be healthy and so too the cows, without the need for chemical fertilisers, pesticides and drenches. The farm he started, Verona Farm, has been managed biodynamically for 47 years. In 1974, in an era when few people understood what organic farming was about, let alone understood its importance in the health of crops, livestock and ultimately the health of the community, Verona Farm was certified organic. Most of the whole milk from Verona Farm went to a dairy factory, but from the 1980s Tom's daughters, Daphne and Ina Stevens who had taken over the farm, were suppling a small amount of organic milk and handmade yoghurt direct to the Auckland market.
Like Tom Stevens, Murray and Joyce Macdonald moved into organic farming as a result of a search for better farming practices, in their case after experiences with the adverse effects of exposure to chemicals used in a part-time commercial spraying business. After years of conventional farming practice, Murray and Joyce began using biodynamic practices and have farmed a herd of pure bred jersey cows at Merriway Stud, for twenty-six years.
Bounded on three sides by mangroves and harbour, Merriway is largely protected from accidental contamination by chemicals from neighbouring farms. Animal waste is returned to the paddocks as fertiliser along with grass mulch. The only other soil additive is naturally occurring lime. The stock are fed only on grass or hay cut from their own paddocks. Currently the farm is running stock at about half of its capacity.
In the last eight years Murray and Joyce have become progressively more involved in the manufacture of organic dairy products at the Verona Farm processing unit, taking the volume of milk processed from under 200 litres per week up to more than a thousand litres. Three years ago Murray and Joyce bought the processing business from the Steven's sisters. The business continued to expand and Verona Farm was unable to keep up with the demand for milk at the processing unit. As a result Merriway Stud was certified by Certenz to the AgriQuality Organic Standard and started to supply the processing unit at Waitoki.
The Steven's sisters have since retired from milking and there are currently no cattle at Verona Farm; all the milk used at the Waitoki processing unit is transported daily from Merriway. Today 3500 litres of milk are processed each week at Waitoki and there are plans for a major expansion with a new facility at Glorit capable of processing up to 50,000 litres of milk per day.
At present, however, the processing unit is small and altogether the business employs eight people. Currently demand outstrips supply. While they could obtain high returns for their products in a market place that puts a premium on organic foods, Verona Farm keeps the prices low and affordable, and part of the company's philosophy sees them providing organic dairy products to people with serious health problems and limited financial resources, free of charge. They also guarantee supply to their smaller customers, while cutting supply to those retailers who they believe put too high a margin on their products.
Earth to Table - Its About Respect
From the soil at Merriway to your kitchen table, Verona Farm organic dairy products are the end result of a holistic and equitable process that values the contribution of every organism along the way.
Each morning Mars, the farm manager at Merriway Stud, spends time with the cows in the paddock allowing them to defecate on the grass before moving them to the milking shed. They are not hurried and milking is stress free. As a result effluent from the milking shed is minimal. What little there is, is washed into a specially planted area of Chinese poplars which provides a natural and ecologically sound filtering system for the run-off.
The paddocks are lush and the cows are exceptionally healthy, testament to the success of both the land management and the treatment of the animals. It is remarkable that a number of cows are still being successfully milked at ages of ten to fifteen years and, up until recently, a 22 year old cow was still being milked, at three times the age of most commercial dairy cows. The animals are bred for their fine temperament and each animal is individually valued for its contribution to the success of the farm.
Mars treats all the animals homoeopathically when any health problems arise, for example, in rare cases of mastitis, and the cows are given a certified organic vitamin and mineral supplement. Mars raises healthy calves that are often milk fed months longer than calves on conventional dairy farms. All products used on the farm are organic and environmentally friendly: a tea-tree based teat wash is used on the cows in the milking shed. Expel, a certified organic sanitiser, is used as a surface steriliser in the milking shed and also in the processing unit. It is used on both sides of the (red line) area to sanitise all surfaces within the processing unit, i.e. floors, walls, mixing and blending equipment. The staff spray Expel inside their gum boots to eliminate odour or any transmittable viruses.
Expel is also used as a hand sanitiser and is not harmful if fogged or sprayed into the enclosed unit, and is sprayed onto the refrigeration/cooling room filters. Expel's detergent disinfectant is also used as a sanitiser for porous surfaces. Expel's AllClean is a cleaner that leaves no harmful residue after washing. Expel New Zealand Limited distribute a range of environmentally friendly sanitisers and odour neutralisers, as well as a range of naturally occurring non-pathogenic bacteria that assist Mother Nature in the treatment and reduction of waste products for sceptic tanks, and drain and grease trap removal.
Expel have the same concerns in putting people and the environment first, which is why we look at forming working relationships with similar companies that we have been working with for nearly twelve months.
In the manufacture of the organic dairy products only organic milk from the Merriway Jersey cows, sea salt and specially selected organic cultures (cheese starters) and rennet are used.
Murray Macdonald harbours a deep concern for the environment and the people. He worries about the future of our planet, a planet where few people value the soil, animals and the people as much as they value the dollar. Chemicals in the environment and genetic engineering pose a direct threat not only to his farm but to the viability of the Verona Farm label. Whether it is the land, the animals, family, community or the dedicated people hand-making the organic dairy products, for Murray Macdonald it's about respect!
Copyright © 2003 Susan Claridge.
Organic Dairy Foods - People Before Profit
By Sue Claridge
Originally publishing in EcoLiving NZ, March 2003, Issue No. 15, pg 16-19.