How a food supplier’s inventiveness is changing the dairy sector

Farming has always been in the Flanagan blood. This was originally Michael’s dad’s farm, here in Claremorris, Co.Mayo. It would have been a traditional dairy farm with cows. Michael and I spent years working in Europe - in agriscience and the food industry in Italy and France. We were always looking at food trends, and how they would impact people’s eating habits. Non-cow dairy was popular on the Continent, specifically sheep dairy. But with 7 million sheep in Ireland, it’s not very common. That’s so new to Irish people, but not to other Europeans.

When we decided to relocate home ten years later, we had to figure out a way of making the land we have work for us. So we had an idea to produce a handmade alternative to cow’s dairy. We could see the potential in it. It has great health benefits, especially for those who feel they may be sensitive to cow dairy and believe they’re lactose intolerant. When in fact they are sensitive to the protein in cow dairy – which is a different protein to that in sheep dairy. And there was a definite gap in the market as no one in Ireland was making sheep yoghurt. After lots of research, in 2015 we produced the first Velvet Cloud yoghurt. That’s our hero product. We also make a variety of cheeses – semi-hard Rockfield, Cloonbrook, and a Labneh cheese, as well as sheep’s milk. We went into full production in 2017. We have sampling products available on the site, because we believe that once people really try it, they are blown away by the flavour. Sheep’s milk has a high solid content and is naturally homogenised, so it’s thick and creamy.

Our herd is now 400 strong with both Friesian and Lacaune sheep. They roam the countryside freely eating clover and grasses, as it’s a more sustainable way of farming. We have five employees - including a full-time cheese-maker and farm manager.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we had been selling our products through large retailers. We’d also cultivated relationships with chefs in high-end restaurants who’d use our products in their menus. During lockdown, both those channels to selling were badly affected. We had to go online overnight, otherwise we couldn’t get our products out to any customers. My son had been at us to put up an online shop. During lockdown we were forced into it. Getting a full e-commerce site up happened really quickly. With the use of two trading online vouchers from the Local Enterprise Office, we were able to build an ecommerce site selling directly to customers who couldn’t ordinarily buy Velvet Cloud locally. Currently 40% of our products are sold through retailers, 40% directly to restaurants and 20% is through our website. We captured a lot of customers everywhere in the country, and built on that.

Having the website and using social media really helps us get our products into the hands of people who have never tried sheep’s dairy before. We use SEO, and email marketing. We also have a Google Business Profile - where our products come up when people search online for sheep dairy products.

Sustainability is also really important to us. We’ve been awarded gold membership of Origin Green. We’re the smallest business to have been awarded it. It means that we do everything we can do to produce a product that is as sustainable as possible.

The biggest challenge is being a small business and having to do everything. So to help us improve product awareness and physically get our product into the hands of customers and build the brand, digital has been invaluable.

Aisling & Michael Flanagan

Velvet Cloud

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Claremorris, Co. Mayo