Creativity, sheep & the tree change that created a cheese & booze business

Creativity, sheep and the tree change that created a cheese & booze business

We’re profiling women working in agriculture and related fields, thanks to the excellent support of AgriFutures Australia, in line with our weekly publication for women in agriculture, The Ag Wrap.

Running an innovative family farm and cheese business in Tasmania, Diane Rae has come a long way from her days in Queensland as a financial planner. 

She’s the founder and CEO of artisan cheese maker, Grandvewe Cheeses, producing sheep dairy farmhouse cheeses in Birchs Bay, 40 minutes drive from Hobart. 

It’s a business she founded after deciding to make the move to Tasmania following a holiday, and one that leverages her knowledge of the sheep dairy industry to produce a wide range of cheese products, as well as now a micro distillery making Vodka and Gin from sheep whey. The family is also now offering on-farm tasting experiences and a Hobart-based shop, at Brooke Street pier, where the ferry departs for MONA. 

Making cheese and booze is a very long way from the life Diane once had in Queensland, and her previous careers including as a psychologist and financial planner. She gave up the latter in 1989. “Everything was based on greed of fear, and I didn’t want to surround myself with those energies for the rest of my life,” she tells Women’s Agenda. 

Diane went on to build a natural therapy clinic, and later a self-sufficient farm in Queensland. 

But on holidaying to Tasmania twenty years ago, Diane says she felt a profound connection to the place. So much so that within 18 months, she and her partner at the time made the permanent move South. 

“We placed 7000 vines on the property we purchased, I said we need to do something else to develop an income, that’s where I developed the idea of sheep milking.” The sheep roamed below the raised vineyards, with the hope that they could sustainably help maintain them (unfortunately, they ate more than their share). 

Neither the vines, nor the relationship, survived, but the sheep farm evolved and Diane continues to run the business with her two children: her son Ryan Hartshorn managing Hartshorn Distillery, and her daughter Nicole Gilliver as director and lead cheesemaker. 

For Diane, the business was also spurred on by the bursary she won back in 2004 after being named the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award TAS Winner. She used the money to travel to Europe to learn about sheep dairy management, something she says would have been difficult to do given the industry was and continues to be small and competitive in Australia. These travels built on her initial learnings on the industry, which she personally developed by buying back copies of relevant journals, reading one every night before bed for a period. 

“Dairy sheep are very different to normal sheep, and that award literally allowed us to travel into learning more. How do you raise the land, what milking systems do you use? We were able to increase our knowledge because we saw how people around the world were doing it.”

Now, Grandvewe is a business that continues to evolve to serve the market, respond to new technologies and changing  tastes. 

As such, Diane’s passionate about innovation and creativity, describing it as part of her personality, and noting her experiences growing up with a single mother who owned one of the largest children’s wear manufacturing businesses in Australia. 

Today, Diane and her children are never short of ideas, nor ways to improve their cheeses, working within the dairy sheep industry that Diane describes as still very young in Australia. 

In 2019, Grandvewe won the “Best Cheese” prize at the World Dairy Innovation Awards. In 2017, they created one of the country’s first ever sheep milk butters. They are constantly experimenting with and creating news types of cheese, and always examining new approaches to using sheeps’ milk, including leveraging a cheese waste product to create new alcoholic beverages. During COVID lockdowns which immediately saw them facing a 70% drop in sales, they produced hanitiser through their distillery, and continued to keep their shop open to visitors and leverage their website to post cheese and spirits to anywhere in Australia. 

“Our task is to make sure we don’t chase butterflies,” she says. “When you do see lots of opportunities, you need to distil down to what we should focus on bringing it back to your mission state. Get back to your why.”

And that task in 2021, is about serving a growing market for artisan cheeses in Australia, especially with increasing market demands for such cheeses and a slow down of imports of European cheeses. 

Recently asked what she would tell her 21 year old self, Diane said she’d urge her to slow down, to celebrate failures and pay attention to their lesson.

“Lead with your heart and follow through with your head. If you are continually hitting your head against a brick wall, then there is a reason for that. Listen to it and realise that although you think this is the correct part, it is not and a better one will become evident if you allow yourself to be open to the messages.” 

An instinct to create new pathways is certainly one that has served Diane well, and ultimately enabled Australians to enjoy a range of new foods and beverages. 

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