That's the Spirit: Deb Kiem - Mendooran NSW
Self-confessed “country girl through and through”, Deb Kiem, is a staunch advocate for Mendooran and woe betide anyone who has an unkind word for the small town where, she says, there’s more going on than meets the uneducated eye.
Deb: I was born in Moree, where Mum and Dad were share farmers, but then we moved to Coonabarabran, which is where I spent all my childhood and schooling years. I’m a country girl through and through.
Jen: How did you wind up at Mendooran?
Deb: I ended up marrying a nice fellow from down Muswellbrook/Aberdeen way, where I was involved with a Hunter Valley cheesemaker, and we met through a series of events. We wanted to buy more land for cattle, but everything around there, in that horse country and in the Barrington Tops, was too expensive. We saw this block here on the Castlereagh (River) at Mendooran for sale and it didn’t take much to twist his arm to say “How about it?” We bought a block here and we came backwards and forwards from the Hunter Valley for ten years doing the farming, and I was still working as a teacher and doing the cheese making. He was also working and then he finished his work and we moved over full time a couple of years ago. I was doing a little bit of teaching at Coonabarabran, and at the preschool here in Mendooran. Then my friend Pip (Archer) and I got together and started talking about cheese… the rest is history!
Jen: So you’re one half of Blue Sky Cheese Handmade in Mendooran – you and Pip are obviously both “can do” kind of girls.
Deb: I guess you could say that! We just thought, well, why wouldn’t we make artisan cheese from here in Mendooran? We are two optimists sharing the same journey – we just don’t think that anything is too hard, or impossible. One of Pip’s great sayings is that no matter what, we can’t fail.
For instance, we wanted to put our cheese into supermarkets but, apparently, we needed barcodes. So we just looked up “how do you get a barcode” and we did it. We say, “Let’s look that up…” and it becomes a reality (laughs)!
Deb Kiem, Mendooran NSW
Jen: Was it important to both of you to have “Mendooran” in the name of your business?
Deb: It was for sure. It was one of those unspoken things between us. We are very much on the same wavelength as far as small towns being the best places to live and where you have the best opportunities. We both believe wholeheartedly that being from a small town is wonderful, so we put “Mendooran” straight away into the name without even saying “Will we or won’t we?” out loud. We just wrote it down and sent in our ABN application.
It’s been fantastic because every time we put our cheese in a competition or have it on display somewhere it has “Handmade in Mendooran” on it, and that makes your chest swell with pride. We know it’s a great place, and we want to tell other people whenever and wherever we can. There are so many people like us in small towns, and even through drought or other tough time, there are people on farms having a go and being optimistic and forging ahead.
Mendooran-based cheese makers, Deb Kiem and Pip Archer.
Jen: What makes you proud of Mendooran?
Deb: It’s an honest little place. People are there for each other. I’ll give you an example: there’s a social media group called Mendooran Classified, and at any time, you can look at that and there will be a request from an elderly person going to Orange to get their eyes medicated and they can’t drive home and they’ll say, “Can anyone bring me home?’’, and straight away there are 20 responses of people saying, “I will drive you’’.
Someone wants a tyre restored or something replaced and straight away people are onto it. There was an awful heatwave back in January and it was just a very difficult time. Every day people were connecting, and checking in to see that our old folk were okay, and saying, “Let’s go and check on so-and-so…” People are there for each other.
From the minute we moved here and started walking into the post office and the newsagent and the hotel, everyone was just so friendly. We had a fire on our property while we weren’t here and we came in the afternoon and there were fire engines and people with utes and fire trailers, all over our paddock. We weren’t here and we weren’t even locals then – this was about ten years ago – but they were just there to help because they do that for everybody.
We were able to put $50 on the bar at the hotel with a cardboard sign saying thank you for the firefighting and saving our house. We said, “Help yourself to a schooner – you know who you are.” So it’s that kind of thing that makes me proud to be part of this community. At the moment there are so many applications from different groups within the town for grants for improvements to various facilities. Everyone is trying to improve the place for the old people, the young people, for the cheesemakers…(laughs)!
Jen: God bless the old, the young and the cheesemakers! Tell me about the community spirit of Mendooran.
Deb: It is a real “can do” kind of town, that’s for sure. Pip and I have experienced travellers coming through and coming to taste our cheese and going, “Wow, this is a beautiful backwater. This place is going backwards.” You should see us get on our soap boxes, because it’s not what you see on the outside. Look harder and there’s lots going on. There is the renowned distillery, we have a really strong pony club and polocrosse, a very strong SES outfit, a really active CWA and there’s a great choir. There is so much going on under the veneer of what a tiny little quiet town looks like and its surprising. So many small rural villages are like that and you will find the president of one organisation is the secretary of another one and so on, and that’s what makes a small town what it is.
Jen: Speaking of wearing a number of hats, you’re involved in more than just the cheesemaking – why is it important to get involved with your community?
Deb: It’s in both Pip’s and my nature to step up, because we are great believers in that what you give out in the world is returned to you. You get such satisfaction and you can’t just travel through life and achieve and win and be renowned and be recognised. That is too hollow for me. You need to be able to be have that and use it to enrich other people’s lives as well.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Deb Kiem & Pip Archer having a bit of fun in the Mendooran School sesquicentenary parade in 2019.