Denise Riches, pictured on our home page with her ‘arty’ goat, was a high-profile business executive around Australia and New Zealand. With her husband James they bought 10 acres outside of Victor Harbor so they could land their sporty Cessna on weekends. Now she tends to more than 750 goats, and is earning national acclaim for her amazing goat dairy products. Friends and strangers call Denise Riches the “Goat Lady”. Busy days she gets up at 4.30 and finishes tending to her herd at ten o’clock that night. It’s an 80-hour week, while her husband, James, ex-RAAF, goes off doing his electrical engineering thing.
Not a bad day’s work for a New Zealand girl with Swiss parents, especially after being a high-profile management consultant for international business audit firm KPMG working with governments in Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and her home-town Wellington, plus with degrees in microbiology and mechanical engineering.
And especially when considering Denise and James were looking for a 10-acre property on the Fleurieu to do the weekend farming bit, taking it in turns flying their two-seater sports version of a Cessna aircraft.
However, there can be life-changing obligations. These guys had a goat, a legacy of Denise’s childhood passion when she had one named Dusty. Now they have more than 700, including 200 currently lactating.
Their business – Hindmarsh Valley Dairy – ran by Denise is recognised as one of Australia’s finest producer of goat products, picking up the Most Successful Exhibitor Award at the Royal Sydney Show the past three years and an amazing swag of other gold and silver medals for the Best Farmhouse Cheese from around the nation.
Their products including buttermilk, cumulus (a French-style goat’s curd light in texture) and a natural pot cultured yoghurt can be found on Qantas flights and in specialty stores all over Australia except Tasmania. You’ll find some at the markets and the health store in Victor Central. The demands for her products are so great almost everything is made to order, and a flood of compliments return.
On any given day at this goat farm on Adelaide Road just outside of Victor Harbor you will find our former high-rise executive in her daggy “trackies” and Wellington boots tending to her goats. The Cessna is nowhere to be seen; sold to pay for fencing, a subtle reminder rearing a herd of Capra aegagrus hircus, which were first domesticated 9000 years ago, is not necessarily about the money.
“I just love working with the goats,” she said. This incredible couple that dares to follow her passion has no children, just a lot of kids and she loves every one of them.
Their amazing journey began in 2000 when Denise and James were living in Adelaide and fell in love with the Fleurieu.
“We were looking for a 10 acre block to just set up for a weekender or retirement, and we realised that 100 acres was cheaper than 10 acres,” Denise said.
“We both had farming backgrounds so we bought the 100 acres and then thought, ‘what in the hell are we going to do with it?’ We somehow bought 12 Alpacas so we bought a small flock of 12 Angora goats to deal with the weeds.”
The Riches then bought sheep, and after realising their future wasn’t in the fibre or meat side of the venture, James focused on his real job while Denise toyed with goat cheesemaking ideas for 12 months and created something special
They purchased another 100 acres and more goats in 2004, and suddenly the business was serious, certainly not without its heartbreak.
Denise likes to believe the definitive secret to her ultimate success was the fact she cares for the goats – how they are reared and looked after.
“We farm so we produce the milk ourselves,” she said.
“We care for the goats’ health, and we have total control of the milk and its quality. We are not certified organic, but we run it using organic principles.
“Goat milk is fragile. The molecules are very small, and the milk must be really fresh… if it’s agitated, stored or sent through lots of pumps it gets a strong and gamey flavour which is what people typically equate with goat cheese. It’s because the milk is not the freshest and has had time to degrade, without going off.
“We have a policy to use the milk immediately while it is still warm. It doesn’t go into a vat, doesn’t cool down or get agitated; it goes straight from the dairy. We hand cart it into our cheese vat and that makes the product very light and clean with a sweet flavour.
“We hand make the cheeses so there is no equipment other than our pasteuriser. Everything is hand-ladled so the curd is treated very gently.”
Denise admits there has been the frequent thought, ‘why am I doing all of this?’ especially when things haven’t quite gone right. “When it has got tough we have thought, ‘should we give this away?’, but I cannot think of anything else that I would prefer to do. It’s the passion for tending to goats.
“We do get emotionally attached because we hand-raise them. Some of my older girls – the grannies – are 14 years old so we have enjoyed that long-term interaction. They have personalities. We care for them; they are not just goats.
“It’s funny how your lifestyle changes. We used to go to cafes on weekends for breakfast; now we would be lucky if we go out once a year; it’s a seven day week thing, milking twice a day.
“But this is a lifestyle choice. My husband will come home and talk about what his mates have been doing, the latest car they have bought and their latest holiday, and I say that would be nice. But then I think they are not paying for a farm and have to do the stuff we need to do. For us, every day is different; some are wet and miserable, or a goat might be sick, but other days it is just brilliant.
“We feel great knowing a lot of our market goes to people who are organic or have an allergy, because goat milk is good for allergies. It is also A2, which some people find easier to digest. We feel honoured because we are the only dairy in the state licensed to do raw milk, and the only goat dairy in Australia licensed to sell raw milk cheese. We have our niche markets.”
Hindmarsh Valley Dairy is also special because it refuses to cut the horns off the goats when they are young. “It is a cruel process,” Denise says. “Besides, we have problems with foxes and eagles so the goats need to able to protect themselves.”
And if you have ever doubted how much Denise loves her goats, she refuses to send the “old girls” to the abbatoir. “You wouldn’t send your dog there,” she declares. Instead, Denise puts them out to pasture in what she calls the “Granny Paddock”. What a nice idea.