Otago’s ‘‘fantastic little cheese plant’’, the Stirling factory has featured strongly in the Fonterra Best Site awards.
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Fonterra Stirling dairy processing plant manager Morgan Watt and the two awards the cheese factory won at the recent Fonterra awards. PHOTO: MARY-JO TOHILL

The Fonterra plant near Balclutha won the Japan Cheese award, for continuously supplying high-quality products to Japan for the fourth consecutive year, along with the Best Small Site for the second year running, the first site to achieve this.

The gongs came as no surprise to Stirling manager Morgan Watt, who said the achievement was a reflection of the site’s continued ‘‘dedication to quality cheese-making’’.

‘‘It is a fantastic little cheese plant. I’m proud that Stirling has also kept the title of Fonterra’s Best Small Site, securing it for the second year. This shows our team’s continued dedication over the past season.’’

The plant employs 110 people and 90% of its cheese is exported. It has a fleet of nine tankers and in peak season, processes up to 1.5million litres of milk every day.
Mr Watt (49) was born in nearby Balclutha but grew up in Stirling, within a whiff of the cheese factory.

He has a 30-year work history with the plant.

‘‘I have moved away from the district several times but always get drawn back.’’

As a school-leaver he wanted to study law but after a far-too active social life at university, his father told him he needed to get a job.

He started packing cheese in 1991.

‘‘It was Otago Cheese Company then and Tony Smith was the site manager.

‘‘We made about 7000 tonnes that year and that was a record. This past season we produced 54,000 tonnes.’’

In the 1990s the company paid for him to attend Massey University, where he studied for a diploma in dairy technology, and he had continued up the career ladder.

Stirling’s ingredients for success were no secret.

‘‘Really simple answer is the people. From the local farmers producing fantastic quality milk, the tanker drivers picking it up, right through to my site team. They all care and want to do the best.’’

He paid tribute to his workmates, ‘‘Pikes, Monty and Pud’’, who had all been his bosses at various points, and had over 100 years’ experience between them. They had all seen the site grow into what it was today, he said.

‘‘They are just good people doing a bloody awesome job.’’

Making quality cheese was a relentless day-in, day-out task, but he had a mantra to keep up the enthusiasm.

‘‘Keep moving and innovating. Invest in your people and your asset. Don’t let anyone tell what you cannot do, if you know it can be done and it is the right thing for the co-operative, just get on with it and do it.’’

Probably the most challenging thing about making cheese was the variation in milk composition during the year.

‘‘We do not standardise our milk. It comes off the farm and the cheese makers use all their experience and expertise to make it into the awesome cheese that gets sent around the world.’’

He loves a good vintage cheddar.

‘‘The older, the better. I enjoy it with a beer and good company.’’

Fonterra’s Southland plant featured prominently in the awards.

Of Fonterra’s 25 sites nationwide, Edendale won two awards, which included the Transformation Cup, which reflects performance over three or more seasons and the Best Large Site award for quality, safety, sustainability, asset management and operational efficiency.

One of the oldest dairy processing sites operating in New Zealand, the plant employs about 700 people and exports 14million bags of milk powder per year: If laid out in line, the bags would reach from Invercargill to Dubai. In peak season, Edendale processes up to 15 million litres of milk every day.

THE Dairy Industry Code of Conduct has brought about a “significant culture change” within the dairy sector and helped increase competition at the farmgate, according to Australian Competition & Consumer Commission deputy chair Mick Keogh.

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