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Going green to support local dairy

Picton dairy farmer and producer John Fairley likes his milk the old-fashioned, natural way and thousands more are following his taste buds. 

Each week his Country Valley processing plant produces about 100,000 litres of milk products to supply the local, Sydney and Canberra markets.

When John invested in the plant a decade ago, he was producing just 8000 litres per week from his own farm. 

However, Country Valley soon found it was perfectly placed to capitalise on growing consumer interest in natural local food production and has since grown into a profitable venture, sourcing milk from six different farms.

“Milk is a good, healthy and natural product and we’ve got to keep it that way and promote it that way,” John said.

“Everybody now wants to know where their milk and their food come from, what’s in it, and the ethics of how it’s produced.”

Country Valley’s focus on making a natural product in an environmentally friendly way has held it in good stead with consumers.

“People seek us out and notice the difference and rave about it,” John said. “We get a lot of awards at shows and the interest is built up through word of mouth. Our milk tastes like milk once did. I never use permeate and that makes it taste so much better. It works well for making coffees in the shops.”

“Milk products are healthy, for example skimmed milk is much better than energy drinks,” he said.

John farms the way his grandfather and great-grandfather once did and thinks Australians would be better off if they went back to basics with their eating habits.

“We’ve got to go back to basics. It’s going the wrong way at the moment and adding millions to the national health costs.”

After the dairy industry’s deregulation in 2000 and land transfers within the family, John realised he could not survive with 100-120 cows on 130ha of land, which runs alongside a beef operation managed by his brother Peter.

As the sixth generation of the Fairley family on the land, he was not about to be the one responsible for breaking the link that dates back to 1855, when his forefathers arrived from Ireland. His son Tom, 25, is the seventh generation and currently works the dairy.

“It’s been operating as a dairy for so long that we like to keep it going,” he said. ”We’re building those numbers up now.” Moving into on-farm processing was a no-brainer.

“It wasn’t a hard decision to make. With deregulation and changes on our land, we had to do something. I wasn’t going to be the generation that loses the land.”

Production went through the roof when $1 per litre milk was introduced and people started thinking more about supporting their local dairy farmers.

“We’ve had 55 per cent growth since the $1 milk came in and people turned to us. We’ve had to replace four major items in the plant to keep up with the extra demand.”

The plant was built to process up to 120,000 litres a week and John has no plans to expand.

“I’ve got a no-growth policy. I think 110,000 a week will do; anything above that I would be too stretched. If I got bigger I would lose my niche in the market.

“The accountants go purple when I say I’m not going to grow any more but we want to get our efficiencies up and our costs down.”

John completed a systems agriculture course at the University of Western Sydney and puts its philosophies of systems thinking, communication and continual learning into practice. He admits the tough years experienced building up the business had an unexpected positive impact.

“Between 2004 and 2008 I couldn’t afford to put fertiliser, sprays or anything on the paddocks. We used as much recycled and diluted cow manure and water as we could. I thought the whole farm would collapse but all of a sudden it took off. I did a soil test and found that over the four years I’ve increased the carbon levels by 25 per cent.”

The farm has not used chemical fertiliser for three years and instead relies on on-farm recycling, composted chook manure and recycled food waste out of Sydney.

“I get a heap of food waste out of cafes I supply in Sydney and mix it with horse manure, straw and sawdust for a fantastic compost. I closed the loop; I send so many nutrients to Sydney in the form of yogurt and milk and cream and now I’m bringing nutrients back.”

The environmentally friendly practices are not only good for the farm but also for Country Valley’s reputation and bottom line.

“Every time I go green I save money and the community appreciates it,” he said.

“I will never stop carbon farming. I’ve had clover come back, and the worms have come back. There are just too many benefits.”

While John supplies and has a good relationship with major retail chains, he remains concerned about the impact of $1 per litre milk.

“Everyone is racing to the bottom and no-one expects to pay what they should for healthy food, but you have to remember the poor old manufacturer. They have to do things cheaper and cheaper which eventuates in too many Australian food manufacturers going out of business.”

However, John, who attended the local launch of the Legendairy communication initiative in Camden to build the profile and reputation of the industry, looks forward to the challenges ahead.

“Farming has been good to us. It’s a way of life and we want to see our heritage continue and our valley stay as farming land.”