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Gippsland farmers thrive with industry lifeline

This time last year the future looked bleak for Drouin dairy farmers Rose and Glenn Atherton.

A dairy industry crash had seen their milk price cut to well below what they needed to survive. Having just purchased a new block of land, they had no idea how they were going to make ends meet.

But Rose isn’t easily defeated and she soon found a lifeline in Melbourne’s Fitzroy-based St David Dairy.

Today the Atherton farm is the sole supplier of St David Dairy, giving Rose and Glenn a new lease of life in the industry they love.

The former Murray Goulburn suppliers had been stunned when their price was slashed.

“I was like a zombie for 24 hours,” Rose admitted. “It was like a death in the family and a real kick in the guts because we’d just purchased an extra 70 acres. We didn’t know how we could survive.”

Rose said the farm would have gone bust if they hadn’t changed.

“We’d been with Murray Goulburn for nearly 20 years but the maths didn’t add up,” she said. “I rang all the big milk companies but no-one would take us on. Then I googled all the little milk and cheese companies in Melbourne and rang them, but they all said no.”

When all hope seemed lost, a friend liked St David Dairy on Facebook, giving a new option. Rose hadn’t heard of them but contacted manager Ben Evans and by September the Athertons had become the micro-dairy’s sole supplier. 

The benefits flowed both ways. The Athertons are now more viable and St David Dairy can now tell customers they source their milk from the Atherton’s 300 Friesian cows in the rolling green hills of Gippsland.

St David Dairy has more than 300 customers across Melbourne and Gippsland and sends its 10,000 litre milk truck to the Atherton farm five days a week. The Ferraro Dairy Company takes the milk on weekends and public holidays.

Ben Evans says finding the Athertons “was the last piece of our puzzle”. 

“By teaming up with a single great farm we have the benefits of a reliable source of beautiful milk, while being able to feed information back to our keen customer base of where the milk is from, the breeds, feed and on-farm practices,” he said. 

“It also allows us to pay a good price direct to the actual producers of the milk, which is easily lost when procuring milk from different sources. It was extra satisfying hearing and seeing the impact it had for Rose and Glenn in what was a tough time, and was such a “win-win” situation.”

Rose says the arrangement is working well. “It’s 10 times better than this time last year, but it’s still a hard slog for everyone,” she said.

Glenn grew up on the farm and Rose, originally from New Zealand, has also been in the dairy industry all her life and didn’t want to quit.

“It’s a great way to raise our four kids,” she said. “We’re close to town and only an hour from Melbourne so we didn’t want to leave, but we couldn’t sleep at night worrying about how we were going to get out of it. We’ve been lucky, but as my accountant says, `Rose you didn’t let ‘no’ stop you. You kept going until you found a solution’.”

Many farmers have been through a tough year and Rose realises they were lucky to find a new option in St David Dairy. “It’s a nice fit and they make amazing products,” she said. “I remember years ago saying to my husband that I’d love to open a factory here and bottle and sell our milk. Now we’ve got the next best thing.”

Image courtesy of Dairy Direct