If they were a “normal” dairy farm, they would likely be facing fewer obstacles.

But Co Mayo-based Aisling Flanagan, who owns and operates agri-food business Velvet Cloud (which specialises in sheep’s milk yoghurt and cheese), with her husband Michael, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re unlike the traditional dairy farmer,” she tells Irish Country Living. “The milk price [per litre] has shot up for them, but being in sheep’s milk we are not in a commodity market so it hasn’t for us.”

For Aisling, this means that while the cost of living, farm inputs and cost of production have all increased, she is unable to increase her product prices to a similar level to help offset the costs of doing business.

“We’re a food business and a farm – we’re running two businesses and both have been badly affected with costs,” she says. “Between both businesses it looks like we will have to absorb between approximately €30,000-€50,000 by the end of the year.”

Panellist on cost of food

Aisling will be a panellist at this year’s Women & Agriculture Conference, which will take place 27 October at the Knightsbrook Hotel in Trim, Co Meath. Here, the discussion around food costs, inflation, and making a living on-farm will continue.

Aisling and her husband, Michael, produce yoghurt and cheeses from their herd of carefully-bred sheep. / Philip Doyle

While facing unique challenges, the brand awareness around Aisling and Michael’s Velvet Cloud product line has never been better. Sheep’s milk (as well as goat and buffalo milk) has a different protein to cow’s milk which can make its products easier to digest. Many who are sensitive to dairy products can consume sheep’s milk products because of this.

Aisling is currently working with researchers at the University of Limerick to help further identify additional health and nutritional benefits for consumers.

“Our sheep’s milk is a local grass-fed product,” she explains. “It hasn’t been flown halfway across the world. The fermented nature of our yoghurt is a positive for people interested in their [gut] microbiome. Because sheep’s milk has a naturally high, solid protein content, we don’t need to add anything or strain away anything – other high-protein options are often processed in some way.”

Building awareness

Over the years, this increased consumer awareness around the Velvet Cloud product line have created a loyal customer base for Aisling and Michael.

“In keeping with the trends for microbiome and dairy alternatives, we’ve done well and expanded – but obviously, we have been hit with massive challenges over the years,” she says. “From a sales perspective, we’re in around 150 retailers, we have a significant food service business and, because of the pandemic – which was a huge challenge – we are now online and still selling online every week.”

Business has grown for Aisling and Michael over the years, but there have been many struggles, too. / Martina Regan

Another important cohort who have been championing Aisling’s product line are Ireland’s chefs. She credits the likes of JP McMahon (Anair) and Jess Murphy (Kai) for helping normalise sheep’s milk products as something as delicious as it is nutritionally dense.

“No matter how polite people are, they hear ‘sheep’s milk’ and think it’s going to taste really strong,” Aisling says. “It’s just a resistance people have. So the fact that high-end chefs are using our products and identifying them on the menu – that has really helped. Ireland has a great chef community. During the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year competition, which took place last week, I think three of the competitors were using our product in their dishes. We have been so fortunate, in that sense.”

Sharing and learning

Irish Country Living are looking forward to welcoming Aisling, along with our many other speakers and, of course, the attendees, to our Women & Agriculture Conference and Aisling says she is looking forward to learning as much as she is to sharing her story with others.

“It is my first time attending Women & Agriculture, and I’m really looking forward to networking and learning from other attendees,” she says. “It’s scary times and in times like these, it’s good to share with others and learn from what other people are doing.”

Velvet Cloud products, made with sheep's milk, are options for those who are unable to digest traditional cow's milk products. / Philip Doyle

In addition to Aisling, our food prices panel will also feature food consultant Malachy O’Connor and will be chaired by Phelim O’Neill, market intelligence and EU specialist with the Irish Farmers Journal.

In addition to this panel on food prices, we will also feature panels on women’s health and personal and farm-family finance.

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