Cheese, initially handmade on the farm, is now a major export for New Zealand. So how has the cheese and the manufacturing changed, and why is some cheese still handmade?

Dairy industry major New Zealand exporter

The dairy industry is a major export earner in New Zealand, with about 95% of the products we produce being sold overseas. In most other countries, dairy products are produced largely for domestic consumption.

Small beginnings

The first dairy cows were imported into New Zealand in the early 1800s. Initially, farmers only kept a few cows to provide food for their families. They hand milked them and made butter from the cream and cheese from the whole milk. Any surplus was sold or bartered for other goods at a local store.

Until about 1900, most cheese was farm produced, and dairy products were considered a luxury rather than a staple food.

The beginning of factory production

The beginning of refrigerated shipping in the early 1880s enabled New Zealand to export dairy produce. This led to the introduction of larger-scale factory production that was more efficient and cost-effective, allowing more competitively priced products.

Initially, factories were co-operatively owned by the farmers who supplied them. Most factories were established near ports and rail links throughout the country. However, as transport became more efficient and processing equipment larger and more mechanised, many co-operatives merged to form fewer and larger factories that were more efficient and economic.

A growing industry

The growth of cheese production and other dairy products in New Zealand was influenced by several initiatives:

  • The formation of the Dairy Board in 1923 with responsibility for marketing helped drive the growth of export sales.
  • The establishment of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1927 and later Massey Agricultural College and the Dairy Research Institute. These initiatives recognised the role that scientific research could play in improving the agricultural and dairy industries.

Scientific research contributed to the growth of cheese production by gradually improving the efficiency of different stages of processing. It also helped educate farmers and solve many farming problems leading to improved animal health and farm productivity and hence the quality and quantity of the raw ingredient.

At the same time, developments in technology led to improved equipment and increasing mechanisation and automation of the manufacturing process. These developments gradually increased the efficiency of production and improved the quality and consistency of the cheese.

Increasing range of products

Busy lifestyles and consumer demand for convenient foods that are quick to prepare and foods to eat on the go, as well as advances in technology including packaging, have contributed to an increasing range of different cheese formats. Examples include ready-grated cheese in resealable bags, cheese powder, individually wrapped cheese slices, single-serve packages and, more recently, ready-cubed cheese.

Continuing artisan cheese production

Despite the growth of large-scale factory-produced cheese, artisan cheesemakers have continued the art of cheesemaking using traditional methods and equipment. As people have become increasingly distanced from food production, interest in artisan-style products has increased.

Many people value the smaller-scale traditional processes used, knowing where their food comes from, buying locally made and even knowing the person who made the product. Easier access to information, increasing awareness of diet-related health issues and environmental concerns such as the impact of factory wastes and food miles are creating more discerning consumers and driving a trend to artisan products.

Today, artisan cheeses are widely available in supermarkets, specialty stores, restaurants and also through farmers’ markets. Advances in science and technology have also contributed to efficiencies in artisan cheesemaking, but largely handmade methods are retained to produce high-quality traditional products these cheesemakers value.

Useful links

New Zealand dairy industry
Find out more about the history of the New Zealand dairy industry on the Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand’s (DCANZ) website.

History of dairying and dairy products in New Zealand
Read a detailed history of dairying and dairy products in New Zealand from the early 1800s on Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand website.

    Published 11 April 2012