Simon and Judith Hill's Nepalese adventure
PUBLISHED: 09:48 02 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:48 02 August 2016
When Simon Hill and his wife Judith embarked on a VSO placement they never dreamt that his Dorset cheese-making skills would bring help to hundreds of local farming families
Turning 60 and closing the door on careers that lasted more than four decades should in no way herald the end of the road. The new door which swung open for my wife Jude and I gave us the opportunity to share what we had learnt during those earlier years. It also meant we could play a small part in lifting families out of poverty and improve their access to health and education services. Jude and I both grasped this challenge and become volunteers placed for two years in a developing country by VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas.
Since arriving in Nepal in July 2014 life has been full of new experiences! Living through an earthquake and the subsequent political upheaval, has been testing, and added a humanitarian aid dimension to our work. Jude, whose career was in education, has been based in the mountainous district of Lamjung where she works on a well-established education project ‘Sisters for Sisters’. She is community-based, facilitating a mentoring scheme where older girls encourage younger disadvantaged female pupils to stay at school beyond their early teens rather than being married and taking up the hard life of farming and domestic chores.
The UK’s Department for International Development funds both our projects. Mine is based in Kathmandu where I work as a volunteer agricultural and food production adviser in the dairy sector, drawing on my background of dairy farming and cheese making in Dorset. The projects name is ‘Samarth’ which is Nepali for ‘helping people to help themselves’. Our aim is to develop existing market chains and the ultimate beneficiaries are smallholder farmers, that we are trying to lift out of poverty and give improved life choices.
Nepal is one of the poorest counties in south Asia where the vast majority of the population are engaged in subsistence farming, in a country that is dominated by the Himalayas and the ravages of climate change. There are half a million milk producers that sell very small quantities of buffalo milk to earn the one thing that is very hard to come by in a subsistence economy, cash. They battle against an array of challenges which include difficult access, lack of water and forage whilst at the same time following traditional cultural practices many of which are not rooted in sound science. I work with all the dairy industry stakeholders including the government, private processors and a huge number of small farmers, who have all asked for help with improving milk quality. Milk purchased in shops has a shelf life of one day, which says it all.
I share my knowledge in all aspects of dairying, food technology, project management and whatever else presents itself. Together we have developed a system of good manufacturing practice (GMP) for raw milk, which is about to be piloted with 7000 small farmers. By sharing my knowledge with Nepali colleagues they will then train others, run programs and become embedded in government agencies. All this will help develop the existing value chains, one benefit of which is an increased flow of cash back to smallholder farmers.
Another aspect of my work is bringing smallholder farmers closer to the market place, in a country where glacial waters draining from the Himalayas, make transport incredibly difficult. These waters form huge rivers such as the Koshi, Narayani, and Karnali Nadi that flow south into India where they are the headwaters of the massive Ganges that empties into the Bay of Bengal. The valleys of these Nepali rivers run north to south and the main lines of transport must navigate across them east to west. For several decades Nepal’s eastern districts around Illam have not only produced tea but also Gouda-type cheeses that are popular both locally and in the central Kathmandu valley. By converting milk to cheese not only does the value rise per kilo but also the product volume is reduced by 90% allowing transport costs to be covered and leave extra margin for the cheese maker and the milk-supplying farmers.
But there have been problems. Cheese quality is declining and a newly established cheese house, asked for some help to get things back on track. So I joined a team tasked with visiting a small factory in a district that neighbours Illam, Terhathum and look at the entire cheese making process and identify what the issues are.
An internal flight with Yeti Airlines to Biratnagar, followed by a four hour jeep ride north to the village of Basantipur takes me to the cheese house, situated at the end of a rough dirt track at an altitude of 2600m. The small team, lead by a young man called Sudbir Tamang, warmly greeted us and we looked at that day’s cheese still on the presses, before retiring to a local lodge for the night.
Next morning, on our walk back to the factory we were rewarded by magnificent views of Makalu (8468m), Cho Oyu (8201m), and the ultimate peak Sagarmatha (8828m), in the far distance. What a wonderful place to work.
The small cheese house produces between eight to ten, 4kg cheeses each day from 400 litres of milk supplied by 150 small milk producers. A Danish development project, some years ago, had been the first to introduce cheese making in the east of Nepal. Gouda is the style rather than Cheddar, with which I am more familiar. Gouda has one big advantage. The final stage of preservation is achieved by submerging cheeses in a brine bath for 48 hours rather than the more tricky methods of air exclusion used in traditional Cheddar making. Brining or not, the cheeses must be matured at around 100c for several months, which makes these cool moist mountains ideal for the process, since refrigeration is still largely unavailable.
The farmers bring their milk to a few collection points from where it is carried, un-chilled, in aluminium cans to the factory. The task of carrying these containers, in dokhas (baskets), is done by various teams. From the closer collection points three young boys do the hour and a half journey, before their school day starts. Where the milk is brought longer distances the three hour journey is done by men and women who each deliver up to 55kgs, before making the return journey, taking a further three hours. But the team spirit is fantastic. Not a single word of complaint, just smiles and unsolicited offers to help each other before a short rest and away home to do more work on the farm.
After a visit to the small cheese store and the inevitable tasting session it is evident that the main problem is the existence of small holes in the body of the cheeses. Customers are voicing their dislike of the tiny cavities and I had some ideas about the causes. These were confirmed by watching, with fascination, the entire cheese-making process. Issues in both the milk pasteurisation and cheese brining stages were allowing harmless gas-producing bacteria to survive and multiply to create small gas holes in the final cheeses.
Throughout the day we debated the scenario eventually coming up with some recommendations. Rajendra, my Nepali counterpart, gave a short training session attended by the entire team, to share the new knowledge and ‘tweek’ the cheese-making recipe. The following day we backed this up with a practical demonstration.
After farewells and promises to come back to check all was going well we jumped in the jeep and away. Subsequently visits to other cheese makers in neighbouring Illam district were planned to tackle similar problems.
Working within this value chain we not only helped cheese makers like Sudbir Tamang but it also helped us to achieve our ultimate aim of both securing and improving the income for the hundreds of milk producing farming families.
About Simon and Judith Hill
Simon Hill has worked in farming and cheese production for the 40 years, the last 25 of which were as Farm and Cheese Director at Denhay. His wife Judith (Jude) worked for 17 years at Beaminster School in the PE Department, the west Dorset town where they bought up their children. In 2014 they packed their bags and embarked on a two year VSO placement to Nepal. They are returning to the UK in July 2016. To find out more visit their fabulous blog spot farmingandfoodnepal.blogspot.co.uk.
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