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Dairy farmer turns music promoter for King Island festival

By day, Troy Smith is part of King Island’s dairy farming community, producing milk for cheeses that are famous across the country.

By night, he’s a musician and one of the driving forces behind the annual Festival of King Island (FOKI) music festival.

On January 31 to February 1, Troy will hang up his milking gear and strap on his rhythm guitar as part of local band, 40 Degrees South.

Along with four bands and six solo performers from the mainland, 40 Degrees South (named for King Island’s latitudinal position) will do their bit to ensure the festival’s success, pumping out original rock songs and ballads about the island.

“When we started the festival, we had guys with a couple of ideas and a bit of ambition,” Troy said. “We didn’t have any lights or proper sound gear or even a stage. Now we’re in our third year and we’ve got five and six-piece bands coming over, $30,000 to $40,000 worth of audio equipment and a sound crew coming up from Hobart,” he said. “Everyone loves it.”

The festival is staged in a natural amphitheatre near the harbour and is organised by Troy and two island ex-pats now living in Queensland and Belgium.

Due to its somewhat isolated location – King Island is about 80 kilometres north-west of Tasmania and 90 kilometres south-east of Victoria – the festival is never expected to be a huge drawcard.

“Outside the bands and their crews we only drew about 50 people to the island last year but that’s a start,” Troy said. “It will grow from there but we’ll probably always be a 500 to 600 people festival over the two days.”

Apart from the music, people “come over for the scenery, surf and cheese,” he said.

Troy, 51, grew up on the island and returned about 20 years ago. He initially worked in kelping but after a back injury he turned to dairy farming about a decade ago.

“It was a matter of opportunity,” he said. “Once I started, I realised I enjoyed it and got pretty good at it.”
He describes renovating the 120-hectare property into “a decent dairy farm” as a labour of love and he now milks about 160 cows, mainly Holsteins on a split calving with about 30 per cent crossbreeds.

“We’re averaging about 30,000 kilograms of butterfat from the cows every year,” Troy said. “Most of King Island is good for dairy farming; we don’t really suffer from drought and can keep growing grass because the rain keeps falling.”

With changing times, the number of family-owned dairy farms has dropped by about 14 since Troy has been part of the industry.

“Here the problem is staying big enough to survive. I’d love to see more independent dairy farmers on the island,” he said. “The challenges you face in such an isolated area of Australia make it all pretty interesting.”

Due to that isolation it costs about 20 per cent more on King Island to produce milk compared to the north-west coast of Tasmania.

“The biggest issue with the isolation is that you can’t just drive up the road to pick up a spare part,” Troy said. “You’ve got to ring somebody and hope the mail is on time or the boat turns up once a week and with the right part.”

But he sees a positive future for the local industry, and as chairman of the King Island Dairy Farmers Bargaining Group, he negotiates on behalf of farmers with local producer Lion and government representative groups.

“The farmers are fairly well organised over here,” he said. “The industry is relatively small but it’s still producing great milk and cheeses.”

Troy is a strong supporter of the Legendairy communications initiative to raise the profile and reputation of the Australian dairy industry.

“The industry is vastly under-appreciated,” he said. “People think it’s a job where you’re in mud and dirt but it’s not like that at all. It’s a highly skilled job that needs a lot of motivation. To get that message out there is fantastic.”

Living in a community of 1500 people isn’t for everyone, but Troy is accustomed to it.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like it,” he said. “It gives me a sense of security and peace. Living in an isolated community does have its unique challenges, which is why I encourage more family-owned farms.”

His wife, Elly, worked on the farm for 10 years and now runs a takeaway cafe called Elle’s Beef & Reef in town. His parents, who own the property, have been beef farming on King Island since the mid-1970s, and have been joined in the beef business by Troy’s sister and brother-in-law.

While Troy laughs when he says his proudest achievement is “surviving”, he actually has a pretty impressive track record in dairy farming.

For several years, the farm was ranked among the top 10 per cent for dairy farm production in Tasmania.

“That was pretty thrilling,” he said. “We’d still be there if I had the time to benchmark. Being able to get the farm from nothing to being a top operation was very fulfilling.”

The farm matches its Tasmanian counterparts in producing milk solids and land is fairly cheap.

“If you’re looking at return on investment we stack up really well,” Troy said. “It’s about growing a lot of grass and making sure the cows eat it properly. Pasture utilisation is incredibly important and we have a knack of making the most from our pastures.”

While he hopes Legendairy draws people’s attention to dairy farming and what a vital industry it is, he also hopes the music festival hits a good note.

“Pretty much all my spare time goes into the band. It’s great fun. We’re really looking forward to getting the songs nailed for the festival and then doing a few more gigs, recording a CD and maybe taking the music to the mainland.”

Just like the island’s famous cheeses.