A New Zealand sheep milk producer with 13 Waikato-based suppliers has signed with a new Chinese distributor following an international trade expo in China.
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The Chinese market has always had an interest in sheep milk, says Maui Milk chief executive Leah Davey. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Nathan McKinnon

The China International Import Export event is normally one of the largest expos each year, and despite Covid-19 forcing organisers to scale things back, it was still a significant show.

Twenty-two New Zealand companies took part in the event, including honey, wine dairy and fruit exporters.

Covid-19 restrictions limited expo visitors this year, but Maui Milk chief executive Leah Davey said there were still about 35,000 potential customers through the doors.

They were represented by their Chinese-owned parent company Maui Food Group, and interest in New Zealand sheep milk was significant, Davey said.

“A new distributor was signed for the sachet [milk power] product up there,” she said.

“It will be one of many signings. The interest is there. Chinese typically understand the value of sheep milk better than the rest of the world because they always gave value to small ruminant milk. It is easy to digest and they have used it for years.”

Maui Milk has not put a value on the trade but the company had “high ambitions”, Davey said.

“All the shareholders have talked about becoming a $100 million business within five years, that’s ambitious but possible through the brand part of the business for sure,” she said.

“What we do know is that our shareholders have been trading in that markets for 11 years, before we were producing, and in the past year there has been 700 percent growth and we don’t see that slowing.”

Maui Milk has 13 farmer suppliers, with eight of them newly on board this August – five from greenfield developments, the rest conversions from cow milk dairies. Typically farms have 1000 milking sheep.

Davey said the spring had gone really well with four suppliers from last season seeing high double-digit increases in per sheep production.

It is a situation that is good for two reasons in her eyes: the genetics are really starting to perform well and highlight the importance of that investment, and farmer experience is increasing to lift performance.

Maui Milk will take on more suppliers next season, but a figure will not be put on that until the company sees how much extra milk these existing farms produce this year.

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused milk prices to plummet…

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