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Vietnamese goat cheese - an award-winning production

In Vietnam, milk drinking is mostly associated with infancy - by tradition it is not a food for grown ups. But over the last decade, rapid economic growth and increasing numbers of tourists have boosted the demand for milk, and imports have had to rise by more than twenty-fold to meet the need. The government, not surprisingly, has been keen to cut the foreign milk bill and to support local farmers in setting up a domestic dairy industry. In August 1996, an invitation was made to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to promote milk production from local cattle and goats, and develop systems for village level processing. Six years later, the results are impressive, with one project in particular standing out.

Blue Mountains Goat's Cheese

'Blue Mountains' goat cheese is an expensive, luxury product. Sold to wealthy Hanoi consumers in a selection of hotels, restaurants and food stores, the cheeses, some flavoured with herbs, some plain, come wrapped and labelled in individual baskets of woven, split bamboo, ideal as a gift or a treat. They are a conspicuous sign of success for the FAO funded work, produced, as the label will tell you, under 'FAO Project TCP/VIE/6613, Made out of pure goat's milk, Produced by Vietnamese farmers'. The cheese comes from the mountainous north of the country, produced by five groups of women farmers, small-scale producers who thanks to low cost training and equipment, are now milking the benefits of hard work and a daily commitment to quality.

Bach Thao goat, Vietnam
credit: NIAH Vietnam

Much of the success of the project has been laid at the door of the FAO's Vietnamese partner organisation, the Goat and Rabbit Research Centre, based in Hatay province. Through the centre, 165 improved Bach Thao goats, a hardy, local breed, were supplied to farmers in five project sites, on the condition that after two years, the farmers would hand on a similar number of goats to their neighbours. The mountain regions of north Vietnam have suffered considerable deforestation, and it was clear that the goats would have to be kept in confinement. However, the centre was able to devise a feeding system, based on leaves from jackfruit trees, which are commonly grown in home gardens, combined with leaves from two exotic species introduced from Colombia and the Philippines. Both plants adapted well to the acidic and infertile soils of the region. Training was provided in managing the goats, planting and harvesting the fodder trees, as well as in hygienic milk production, collection, pasteurisation and processing. All this was achieved with simple equipment, bought in Hanoi shops; the total cost for the first demonstration system was around US$1000.

Jean Claude Lambert, one of the FAO team co-ordinating the project, believes that as well as the poverty alleviation benefits, the project has also taught important lessons about participation. When the project started, field workers found it difficult to attract participants to the goat's cheese idea. Having explained the details of production, transportation, pasteurisation and processing, all under the most demanding standards of hygiene required to produce a consistently high quality cheese, few farmers were convinced that the effort needed would be worth it. What convinced them, according to Lambert, was the money they began to receive some two months after the cheese making operation had been established. For each litre of milk they delivered to the collection and processing centre, they received the equivalent of US$1. Inspired by this, cheese production continues apace. During the first 16 months of production, one group of farmers managed to collect 15,000kg of milk, which was processed into 1500kg of cheese.

The success has prompted hundreds of development institutions to visit the five project sites, and similar schemes are now being established in other Vietnamese provinces, and elsewhere, including Morocco and India. In 2001 the project was given the Edouard Saouma Award by the FAO, on the basis of the poverty alleviation it has achieved, its sustainability and replicability. Staff from the Goat and Rabbit Research Centre have received particular praise, it being widely recognised that, through their commitment, a relatively small investment has had major rewards.

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