Only the Cream of the Crop for Micro Dairy Farmer, Maria van Zyl

Words: Robyn Samuels

In today’s culture of conscious consumerism (and eating), it’s difficult to invest in certain brands – the same ones that tout tree-hugging values while feeding into greenwashing ethics. The only way to ensure that you’re getting the cream of the crop is to go straight to the source… Cream of the Crop owner, Maria van Zyl, is encouraging locals to practice conscious eating, but in an entirely different way that doesn’t involve swapping your raw milk for oat ‘mylk’…

Interview with Maria van Zyl

As part of our Women’s Month series, we caught up with the Piket-Bo-Berg-based micro dairy farmer to about all things agriculture and butter. Join the conversation.

Did you always know you wanted to be a farmer?

From a young age, I learnt the importance of good agriculture and that it is the only way to get good-tasting food.

I grew up on a biodynamic farm in the Franschhoek Valley, where my parents farmed a small 8-hectare mixed farm. We had vineyards, dairy cows, olive trees, and my mom had a production garden that she used to supply local restaurants in the area with fresh produce. My parents have always been very involved in the food and agricultural side of things, and I always felt that if I was going to do anything, I wanted to do it in a way that improved flavour, and came from a product or animal that is grown and taken care for in a way that contributes to soil and human health. Not only is it beneficial for us, but also for the soil. We ultimately can’t have delicious-tasting food if we don’t take care of the soil that it is growing in – this is the same for everything we eat!

After graduating from Constantia Waldorf, I worked at île de païn in Knysna, working in the patisserie section. After 2 years, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship in 2015 to study at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, where I did a three-year undergraduate degree in all things food – except learning how to cook or julienne a carrot!

How did Cream of the Crop start?

It started after my studies in Italy. Being back in South Africa (Stellenbosch at the time) I wanted to do something with cheese. I always wanted to be a baker, hence île de païn, but during my first year in Italy, we spent a week on Alpeggio, in the mountains with local cheesemakers. I think I fell in love with cheese making here… and I thought we have so many delicious bakeries in South Africa already. People are understanding sourdough, we even have commercial versions of it now!

The summer pastures in the Alps are the most prized, like our late winter/spring pastures in the Western Cape – full of young beautiful flowers. This all impacts the quality, flavour and seasonality of the milk! I was so fascinated by this, and wanted to make a cheese that would reflect this! I wanted to start and then struggled to find the milk where I knew the cows and the farmer. I started asking asking myself questions like: what are they eating, when and how often they are milked, has it been pasteurised, where is the rennet from?

Then I realised, I could make butter using natural fermentation to add flavour and all the beneficial bacteria that comes along with it! I wanted the butter to taste the best way a butter could possibly taste, and fermentation usually does that to a product. Butter is easier to make than cheese, less time is required in terms of ageing, but also the specific environment doesn’t have to be so controlled. Butter making was the easiest start to the journey into cheese-making.

Cream of the Crop has come quite a ways! I believe you currently have five cows, how are they doing?

It has been so exciting getting my own cows (and a challenge too), we are constantly learning as we go! The cows are doing well – I can’t believe it’s been just over a year since we got them. We were so lucky to find this breed, as it is very rare to find the dual-purpose original brown Swiss cow in South Africa. It has either been bred for meat purposes or dairy purposes only. I specifically sought a dual-purpose cow that could tolerate and withstand our climate here in the Western Cape. I really wanted to work with a local South African breed, however, they have all been bred for solely meat production.

Our cows calved 6 months after their arrival on the farm, and we began our milking. We are a cow-calf micro-dairy, so we share the milk with the calves – unlike in commercial settings or other dairies where the calf is taken away after it has had its full-on colostrum (usually 2 or 3 days). We kept the calves at foot for 6 months before we began the 8-week weaning process. I believe that if we want to raise healthy animals, calves are where we start; we can’t feed our calves with formula or powdered milk if we want to raise a healthy animal.

The argument against this would be the loss of milk, and this translates into profit, but I believe it pays off in the long run – we have healthy, happy cows and calves, and hardly any vet bills. The calves are almost 9 months old and are in their own field. We will introduce them to the herd again next year, once they no longer wish to drink their mothers’ milk!

What’s been the best and most challenging part of business?

I think the best part has been seeing so many people take an interest in what we are doing. I am so grateful to all our members, restaurants and customers for the support. It has been incredible to see so many people consciously choose to support the farmer directly and pay for the value of a product. I love making new products and experimenting with different cheeses, and being able to use the milk from our farm. The specific biodiversity we have here at this altitude and climate – it’s exciting to see that reflected and preserved in a product.

The challenges! They are constant and abundant! However, I find the day-to-day admin side of things the hardest… the price increases on labels and glass jars have also been a challenge, as well as the load shedding. Farming is probably the most draining and labour-intensive process – it requires so much physical work along with planning, forecasting and hope! If it doesn’t rain or if your borehole stops working, the ramifications are tremendous. Through our Committed Value Chain, customers and our members are closer and more empathetic to these challenges, as it directly influences them and this is how it should be.

How does your business practice sustainability? Please explain how your Committed Value Chain works.

I think in every aspect of our business, we aim to leave or impact our surrounding environment as little as possible. Leaving the environment better than we found it! At the farm level, we practise organic and biodynamic agriculture, so no synthetic inputs are put into the farm and the soil where the cows graze – improving biodiversity amongst the grasses and cultivating a rich nutrient dense alive soil.

With the Committed Value Chain, I adopted the model from the Community Supported Agriculture system, which is commonly used throughout North America and some places in Europe too. The model relies on the customer to commit in advance, for the product they wish to receive. A friend of mine in North Carolina works on a CSA veggie farm, where they send out 200-300 boxes of veg a week, and their customers have paid for their produce 6 months in advance. If you choose to go on holiday, your veg is already grown, and it can be donated or a friend must collect it for you. The veggies can’t stop growing when we choose to not want them, and the same is true for milk. We farm 24/7, 365 days a year; if a customer only chooses to shop at a supermarket when convenient for them and not the farmer, it creates a super unsustainable model. If we want to drink milk or eat vegetables farmed the way we would like to see produced, we need to tell the farmer we will support them way in advance throughout the year!

I have found this system works great for us – we are able to plan, and the customer doesn’t need to think about this one thing. We also re-use all our glass bottles; the members are responsible for returning their milk bottles clean, dry and ready for the following week. We ask our Committed Value Chain members to subscribe in advance for twelve deliveries; if they go on holiday we do pause it for them though… this will change soon! They pay in advance and we deliver fresh milk, double-thick yoghurt, cultured butter, halloumi, paneer, cream, ricotta and our farm’s cold pressed apple juice to them every Thursday. Then, we collect all the cleaned glass bottles and fill them up for the next week.

In a world where mass-produced products dominate, how do you promote the value of artisanal dairy products?

I do feel quite lucky in a way, as a lot of people have come to me seeking an alternative. I can’t and don’t want to ever compete with an industrialised product, and I think my consumer knows that. With the products we make, we want to ensure the highest quality possible – in flavour and source. I think the main challenge will be the price; we can’t compete on scale and therefore, our prices are much higher; also, because everything is made and produced by hand, the time it takes is almost triple that of a commercial product. I think when people taste the product, they understand that in order to make something like this will take longer and cost more. I love doing the workshops because the participants can then see first-hand how long it takes to make a block of butter, how much milk is needed to get 1 litre of cream and understand the cheesemaking process, and then, I believe the connection between quality and value links up.

Some farmers view the rise in veganism as a threat to their businesses; what’s your stance on the matter?

I think it has really benefited me; it has created a more aware and conscious client base. I don’t believe that vegans hold the solution for food security and saving us from global warming or greenhouse gases and rising ocean levels – especially not the ones who are eating vegan products that aren’t found locally or that are highly processed. It creates a conversation around food that would not have been there before. I think the farmers who are practising agriculture in a highly commercial and exploitative way should feel the threat from consumers who are unhappy with the way in which their food is produced. I do think that we should hold all farmers to the same standard. Animals are part of a healthy and holistic food system, and there are many products that end up on a vegan’s plate that are farmed with intensive chemicals, exposing land workers and the environment – so it depends on how you look at it.

There are many days or meals that I ‘eat vegan’, just because it’s delicious whole foods; and other days, I eat meat and dairy products. I believe restricting [meat] consumption so dramatically isn’t of benefit to anyone or anything. The focus should be on the how… how is the lettuce or spinach grown and the oats for your oat mylk? It seems those questions are not a deciding factor, because if it is about sustainability, the switch to a vegan diet isn’t the answer. Most of the economies that are producing these products are not local; they are from so far away, with this crazy long-shelf-stable supply chain with a farmer at the end who gets nothing…

Compound butter has been a big trend lately, what’s your fave?

It really has! I love the one they make at Upper Union with our butter. It’s the dream, especially with that bread they have!

Peak comfort food?

Oooooh, I think bread, butter and cheese. But during these freezing-cold winter months, it’s been pasta! I love all the different variations and shapes and sauces, so a Rachel Roddy recipe is always on rotation.

How much butter is too much butter when spreading it on bread? Any serving suggestions?

Hahaha, good question – I mean I don’t think one can have too much. A ratio of 1:1 is ideal; you have to be able to see your teeth marks in the bite!

I like it when you can still crunch the salt crystals, and the bread and butter are distinct layers. It has to be thick! It has to be on sourdough bread, especially if using Bertie from Prieskas’ flour! The sourdough complements the butter. Freshly baked and a layer of butter and, if you want, a slice of cheese.

How does Cream of the Crop Butter compare in taste to commercialised cultured butter?

It has flavour, but not farm-style flavour. Due to the fermentation, it has a tart acidity accompanied by lots of saltiness that doesn’t shadow the butter flavour. Because the cream has converted the lactose milk sugars into lactic acid, the sourness increases the buttery flavour. Our butter is alive and brimming with beneficial probiotics and bacteria that are constantly ageing and breaking down, releasing more flavour.

Commercial butter is not alive – the milk has been pasteurised and the cream has been standardised, so when it ages, it moves toward bitterness and rancidity!

What could improve in the local farming industry?

I think farming is really difficult, and communicating this to a consumer base is very important. For me, the ideal would be to supply my customers that live close to my farm in a 100km radius. I believe that eating local food is the fastest and easiest way to encourage a sustainable lifestyle. We grow the local economy, and farms in other regions can supply their local consumer base. It’s only because we have moved to a monoculture-based system for maximum extraction and capital gain that we are unable to sustain ourselves locally.

A farm full of grapes, apples, corn, wheat or soy doesn’t feed anyone! They are seasonal crops that need secondary processing; the food we actually need to eat has to be flown or driven in. But, we can’t make the farmer do all the work; I think the customer base needs to improve, shop locally and go out to find someone who is farming and support them. We can grow a lot of produce, but then the consumer chooses to go to the supermarket! There is a lot of room for improvement; for one, we could just all stop spraying glyphosate on the soil… and the customer base could come out and really support the farmers’ work.

You’ve collaborated with some amazing brands like Ouzeri. Any exciting collabs we can all look forward to?

I hope to do a lot more collaborations, it’s such a great way to grow and learn from each other. We are busy building our online shop where we will stock all the things to make your own butter and cheese, and maybe some aprons as well…?

What products do you currently stock, and what are you hoping to add to the range?

We sell milk, cultured butter, double-thick yoghurt, cream, ricotta and paneer. I’m hoping to add our classic custard to the list, as well as our hard cheese.

Where can we find Crop of the Crop products? Are you currently offering any workshops that people can attend?

Our products are available through our Committed Value Chain mainly, and we try to direct most of our members this way. We find that once-off orders and sporadic deliveries don’t work for us. However, we do work at a select few retail outlets such as Olive Branch Deli (they were the first to stock our butter), OZCF Market, Spier and Sans. We sell our produce at the Piket-Bo-Berg farmers’ market on the last Saturday of each month, and on the last Sunday in August, we will do a Pop Up at OZCF.

Workshops run almost every month on the farm, so keep an eye on our Instagram for those. It’s a lovely way to come out and explore our region; there are some beautiful guest farms and mountain walks up here.

Best advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs or farmers?

Ask for help when you need it, and to grow slowly and steadily. We can only do the best we can at this very moment, and there is always more to do. It’s best to take on challenges one at a time, and the growth and success of your business will follow. It’s very hard work, but it’s also hard in the moment to see and remember how far you have come!

To sign up for Cream of the Crop’s Committed Value Chain and workshops, check their social media account below for more information.

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