Michael Morrow: Sometimes I am referred to as Mongolia’s fromager

ariunzaya ariunzaya
2021-07-22 14:26:14
Category: Interview

Mongolian Economy spoke with Michael Morrow, the Executive Director at MACU LLC, about what brought him to Mongolia, what makes Mongolian cheeses special and his vision for the cheese industry.

-Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

-My name is Michael Morrow. I am the Executive Director at Mongolian Artisan Cheesemakers Union LLC. I am from the West coast of North America.

-You are sometimes referred to as “Mongolia’s fromager.”  What does that mean? 

-“Fromage” is the French word for cheese. A “fromagerie” is a cheese shop. A “fromager” is a person who sells cheese and is presumed to know something about cheesemaking. I barely qualify. That said, in Mongolia, there’s not a lot of competition. What is true is that I enjoy artisanal cheeses and cheese dishes made from them, especially with a glass or two of wine. I also have great respect for Mongolia’s nomadic pastoral dairy and believe that it has a role to play in ensuring a future for Mongolia’s herder communities and even for Mongolia’s beleaguered ecosystems.

-What brought you to Mongolia?

-It’s a long story. I am of the generation of North Americans whose lives were caught up and affected by the Vietnam War. Essentially, I never went home. Mongolia is my last stop. I wanted to do something different here.

In 1966, I was studying International Relations at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the United States I had finished all my degree courses by the end of my third year, so I had time to go to Taiwan to improve my Chinese in my fourth year. I ended up staying there longer than I had planned. While I was in Taiwan, the US government tightened conscription rules. According to the new rules, if I did not complete my university in four years – which had now become impossible – I would be drafted into the army. I decided to go to Vietnam on my own.

You do this kind of thing when you’re very young. The Vietnam War had become a central issue in the United States relations with Asia. I was a student of international relations, I thought I was going to pursue international relations as a career. I considered understanding the war important to my future. Without telling my parents, I traded my ticket home for a one-way ticket to Saigon and bought a camera and typewriter with the money that I had in my pocket. I arrived and kind of declared myself a journalist there. I had no experience but became reasonably successful. I ended up being involved in the conflict in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and northeastern Thailand for around seven years.

I came to Mongolia from China. I have lived and worked in most Asian countries, but in Hong Kong and Beijing longer than anywhere else. I spoke Chinese and it was an interesting time to be in China. I stayed in journalism for a while, working as a freelance journalist, magazine editor and publisher. After I had kids, I had to make a more substantial living. I started a software company that failed and a Hong Kong trading company with my brother which was a success. My brother still has it. But it was a connection to a Silicon Valley company that brought me to Mongolia.

At the end of the millennium, I got involved with a California company that applies neuroscience to language learning. The company, which is called DynEd, was looking for someone who could help them set up a subsidiary in China. I had quite a bit of experience with startups – even in Vietnam, I had started a feature news service that had been reasonably successful. I got the job, invested a little in the company and began building a business for DynEd across China. DynEd China began to expand quickly.

In 2007, Mongolia changed its foreign investment law. The amendment raised a foreign investor’s minimum investment from USD 10,000 to USD 100,000. I only became aware of these changes in late 2007, I got in touch with DynEd’s directors in San Francisco and told them that we should set up a subsidiary in Mongolia immediately. They asked me, “Why should we set up a company in Mongolia?”, I said, if we wait until 2008 it will cost 10 times as much. They said, “Okay, if you take responsibility for it, go ahead and do it.” Literally almost the last day of 2007, we managed to set up DyNed’s subsidiary in Mongolia. I became responsible for it and had to come here a few times every year to keep the lights on.

DynEd China became DynEd’s most important venture globally. It is still growing. But I was never good at working for other people. I also am a risk taker and get bored when things become too routine. In 2012, I retired from DyNed. At that time, the CFO told me that they were going to close the subsidiary in Mongolia because it wasn’t making money. I asked how much money we had lost, including the original USD 10,000. He said USD 60,000. I was looking for something new to do. I paid them USD 60,000, took over the company and eventually moved to Mongolia.

-How did you decide to start MACU?

-In 2014, I met Urtnasan Tumurkhuyag. He had been making cheese from the milk of free-range cows during summers in his valley since 1995. A friend who introduced me to him said that he was going out of business. I was shocked because I thought he made world-class cheese and had been doing so for nearly 20 years. I also thought his approach to making cheese – during the hundred days of summer – could be replicated in other valleys. generating additional summer income for remote communities. Herders have two periods to earn an income, in spring from cashmere and in fall from meat. There is a big gap in summer when milk is plentiful.

I saw a really interesting opportunity in what Tumurkhuyag was doing. He is the doyen of Mongolia’s small cheesemakers. I began to work with him. This is an important point. Tumurkhuyag does not work for me. Neither do I merely buy and sell his cheese. The goal is to create a cabal, a network of artisan cheesemakers who cooperate for their own interests to develop an export industry for Mongolia built around a range of high-quality signature cheeses that can compete in world markets.  Mongolian Artisan Cheesemakers Union (MACU) was created in the latter part of 2015 for that purpose.

-You strive to build 100 cheese plants across Mongolia? How realistic is it?

-I always say “I want to build 100 cheese plants across Mongolia.” and everyone looks at me like I am crazy. Sometimes I think I’m crazy too. Mongolia is a difficult country. However, I think it is not only possible but useful to build such a network. Let me explain why. One of 21st-century nomadic pastoralism’s problems is too many animals that are not productive enough. For herders to make more money they have to have more animals. A single goat may you 400 grams of cashmere, but if you want more cashmere you will need another goat. If you’re dependent on cashmere for your income you will keep adding goats to your herd. That is why we have too many goats in Mongolia. It is easy to say but hard to address. In order to improve the income of herders without increasing the number of goats. Cheesemaking can create a summer source of income without adding more animals.

Mongolia has around 70 million head of livestock. Lactating mothers produce a billion liters of milk during the summer. A hundred small cheese plants, operating for 100 days from June to September, could produce 2,000 tons of cheese. To do so, they would use only 20 million liters of milk. We have more than enough milk. We also have more than enough market.

The global market for cheese is about 25 million tons per year. Cheese consumption in the five closest markets – Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong – is a million tons. Mongolia needs only a sliver of the market to be successful.

Mongolia’s cheeses are competitive. They can take that sliver of market share and more. Of course, it’s not easy – indeed, conditions here make business success much more difficult than in other countries where I’ve worked. COVID-19 also has been a big problem for the past two years.  Progress is slow but we’re making progress. In 2018, we built a small model cheese plant on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. It’s up to international sanitary standards, can be replicated easily and is financially viable. The cost of one of these cheese plants varies depending on how much infrastructure you have to put in, but it is somewhere around 3 to 4 million MNT.

-Could you tell us about the projects you are working on to improve productivity in cheese production?

-We will keep producing cheese, increasing the variety of our cheeses and training new cheesemakers. But we also will keep innovating. Our next step is integrating this model plant with other value-adding activities into a bag-level zero-waste, carbon-neutral agro-complex that can operate year-round. We have a few of these projects underway. For example, we want to incorporate a whey processing plant into our planning. Whey is the major byproduct of cheese production. Another thing we want to do is establish a breeding program that conserves and exploits the genetics of appropriate free-range livestock breeds. For example, Mongolia’s Alatau cow produces twice as much milk as a typical herder cow. A typical Mongolian fat-tail sheep gives 300 to 400 milliliters of milk, but there are nomadic pastoral sheep that give up to three liters of milk.

-What challenges did you face during the pandemic?

-We normally keep our model cheese plant, which is located on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, running and producing cheese all year around. Last winter the Government decided to give MNT 500 subsidy to milk suppliers to the eight biggest milk producers. It became impossible to find milk. We had to close our cheese plant. As a result, we also lost our cheesemaking team. This summer Tumurkhuyag, who should have already started his cheese production by now, can’t do so because the herders are not moving into his valley due to the COVID-19 measures. Before the pandemic, I used to bring expert cheesemakers from abroad including the US and Europe. This year, I am trying to bring a cheesemaker from the US. Her travel has been delayed. I hope she can come in August. But perhaps we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Despite COVID-19, last year we had very good domestic sales. We sold out every single piece of cheese in our affinage. It is a sign that domestic demand is growing.

-Does MACU export cheese to other countries?

-So far we have only exported some small sample quantities to Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong. We’ve tried hard to export cheese to Russia and China. Due to political obstacles, these efforts have not gone well. Japan is more hopeful. We have been doing an extensive study of the Japanese market for three years and have even participated in a food fair there. Actually, we have some potential customers waiting in Japan. But to start exporting cheese we need to start our cheese production again. Korea is another hopeful market. The National Development Agency has been helpful to us in trying to open both of those markets.

-What is unique about MACU’s cheese? How different does your cheese taste compared to cheese produced in Europe?

-All of our cheeses are artisanal, which means produced in small quantities using direct simple processes and whole milk. The nomadic pastoral dairy means animals that are free-ranged on wild forbs and grasses. MACU cheeses have their distinct terroir, their tastes and other characteristics are special and the recipe of each cheesemaker is different.

You also can say that Mongolia is one of the few countries where one can make cheeses from animals that are raised and free-ranged on wild grasses. On top of that, it is one of the few places in the world where you can make cheese from the milk of a wide range of animals: cow, yak, sheep, goat and camel.

Mongolia has a comparative advantage in cheesemaking, but only for artisanal cheeses of high quality with their own characteristics. This idea underpins our strategy. In my view, we should be trying to emulate not imitate the fine cheeses of Europe. In the same way that Cabernet Sauvignon coming from Chile is different from the ones made in France, we need to exploit and use the variety of environments that exist in Mongolia to make cheeses with special characteristics that emanate only from here.

-How many types of cheese do you produce?

-We have more than 15 types of cheese that we make in small quantities. My wife, who is a cheesemaker, introduced most of those. These cheeses have become well-known and well-received locally. As I mentioned earlier, we invite cheesemaking experts and they usually introduce one or two new types of cheeses to our team. But Tumurkhuyag’s Khustai Gouda, which has now been made every summer for 25 years, is still the most famous.

Our goal is to have more than 200 cheeses. Our more important goal is to have at least 100 cheesemakers, who, like Tumurkhuyag, make one or two kinds of cheese well. This is not easy. Indeed, developing a cadre of Mongolian cheesemakers who are loyal to the idea of producing high-quality cheeses is one of the hardest tasks. When we started we had Tumurkhuyag making Khustai Gouda, a Frenchman making cheese with his wife, another fellow making goat cheese and a lady making yak cheese in Uvurkhangai. Except for Tumurkhuyag, they all have stopped making cheese.

We use our model plant on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar as an experimental plant. One day we might be making one type of cheese, another day two different types. We do it not only to produce cheeses but also to develop the techniques and train others. Everything was going reasonably well up until COVID-19. By August or September, I hope that we will be back on track soon. We have new plants under construction in the countryside now. We need to get back on track soon.

-How can cheesemakers join MACU?

-We have a lot of people who express their interest. Last year, we did a documentary about Tumurkhuyag. It runs occasionally on TV still. Every time it runs we get calls mostly from the countryside. We have a database of over 400 families, individuals and communities who have contacted us. This is great. We made a lot of new friends. Still, the gap between vision and reality is daunting.

First of all, you need to consider your capital. You have to figure out how to raise enough capital in order to be able to build and operate a cheese plant. MACU is not going to go in and build a cheese plant for you. Having said that, we can be good partners – in planning, design, construction, training, business development, etc. I usually help new cheesemakers to choose their site and figure out what infrastructure must be built and how much capital will be required. We do not charge for our services.

Secondly, you really need to think of how to source your milk before you spend any money. Where is the milk going to come from? How much is it going to cost per liter? There have been cases where small cheesemakers were put out of business because milk became unavailable or the price became too high. It is very easy for the local herders to strangle the local cheesemaker by raising the price of the milk. In short, you have to be sure that people who are supplying the milk are willing to supply at a price that enables you to make cheese at a competitive price. Sometimes extended families have enough animals they themselves control. More commonly, a cheese plant is best done as a community project in which herding families have a stake.

-Who are your biggest consumers? Supermarkets or restaurants?

-We have about 50 outlets including supermarkets such as Nomin Supermarket, high-end restaurants and hotels like Shangri-la Hotel. We also have our own fromagerie (Fromagerie is simply the French word for a cheese shop). Fromagerie MACU is not only a cheese shop but also a cheese shop that does retail trade. We do our packaging and delivery from there. Recently, we got a liquor license for the fromagerie. As soon as we get our cheeses back, we will have wine and cheese nights here. We are planning to open another fromagerie by next year. I hope you will be able to enjoy MACU cheeses soon.

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