Giving back to the industry
When Shirley Harlock married onto a dairy farm, she knew nothing about cows or the industry.
“I was a town girl from Warrnambool,” Shirley admitted. “My father said it would never last; I’d never get up in the morning.
“I had a lot of people to prove wrong.”
And prove them wrong she has.
Forty-five years after that first tentative step onto a dairy farm, Shirley, alongside fellow western Victorian dairy farmer Anne Adams, became one of the first two women inducted onto the Western Victorian Dairy Industry Honour Board.
“I was very humbled by it, but at the same time very proud that two women were nominated,” Shirley said. “I don’t usually play the gender card but dairy usually involves a husband and wife partnership. It’s a secret to success that you work together. This award recognises that women play a big role in dairying, particularly in the Western District.”
Apart from remaining an active dairy farm owner with her husband John, Shirley continues to be a proactive industry representative who advocates for Australian dairy and supports the application of science and innovation into farming practice.
Shirley held local and executive positions on United Dairyfarmers of Victoria and was a Director of the Australian Dairy Farmers Board. She represented farmers on the State Water for Growth Committee and was Chair of Dairy Food Safety Victoria for 10 years from 2003.
She was appointed Chair of the Dairy Australia Future Dairy project in 2005, charged with research, development and adoption of robotic technology onto Australian dairy farms, and in 2012 won the NSW Dairy Science Award. Her involvement continues as Chair of the Sustainable Agricultural Fund.
Shirley was also Chair and a Director of Warrnambool Co-Operative Society for 10 years.
Her extensive industry involvement had a dual purpose: not only did she want to give back to the industry, but she wanted to learn from those around her.
“Dairy offers so much opportunity if people want to learn and to grow,” she said.
“John and I decided the only way to learn was by going out and seeing how other people do things. In 1976 there was a big downturn in price and weather and we had just bought a farm. You think you’re the only one with problems but you find everyone else has got them. Collectively there are ways to address them. Going to discussion groups and getting involved in the UDV taught me a great deal.
“I always believed that if you’re not involved, you’re part of the problem. It’s only by being involved that you can attempt to solve any problem. You don’t wave magic wands but I do get cross when dairy farmers just grizzle.”
Shirley increased her involvement around the time deregulation was starting.
“That was going to be huge and could have had a big impact on our business. John and I thought ‘how are we going to manage this?’ All that information came by being involved on farmer bodies and committees.”
The Harlocks moved to Warrnambool in 1983 and bought Wollaston Farms.
“I milked and I also worked for the police department for many years. It was a dual income,” she said.
Expansion followed and Shirley and John now operate a dairy just outside Warrnambool, beef operations at Tarrone and Macarthur and have a farm in Lucindale, South Australia, running dairy, beef and prime lambs.
They previously had three dairies, at Koroit, Yambuk and Warrnambool.
“We had all of it in one basket. Fortunately when the price crash came in dairy two years ago, prime lambs were good that year. Diversification, if you can do it, really pays off.”
They bought the South Australian farm in response to climate change.
“We were seeking more water. The idea of buying land in South Australia was to ensure that if it’s a dry year we can grow lucerne under pivot and take it back to Warrnambool. If it’s a good year, we run prime lambs and beef.”
Despite the diversification, dairy still has a place in her heart although it is a tough industry.
“Dairy on its own is a risk. The volatility in price and weather has increased dramatically. If you strike the two in one year and you’re just starting off, it’s a tough gig. That’s how we lose the people we can ill afford to lose – the young and up-and-coming farmers.”
Another big challenge is input costs.
“I call them the ‘three big Fs’ – fertiliser, fuel and fodder. They have all increased dramatically and we can’t do anything about them,” Shirley said.
“The other big sleeper for agriculture is energy. Our power costs are a big challenge and there is a 12-year or longer payback on solar.”
Shirley advocates continuing investment in research and development.
“Robotic technology won’t be for everyone, but for those who want to take it up it will be an alternative way of harvesting milk and a way to attract younger ones. We’re not going to get young people coming in at 5am and doing it seven days a week. All that sort of thing has gone.
“We need to attract managers of technology, rather than managers of drudgery.”
Shirley also advocates for sustainable farming and finding ways for young people to progress in the industry, and says there must be a rewarding return at the farm gate for farmers to meet the growing global demand for dairy food.
“I just visited a farm with 3500 cows 24-7 under the roof. There are different ways in which you can dairy.”
Shirley remains proud of their advancement over the past 45 years.
“We came to Warrnambool with 120 cows wondering where the next dollar would come from and built an enterprise that gives us a rewarding lifestyle, satisfactory income and choices by being able to grow scale.”
After 45 years Shirley wants to remain in agriculture.
“We have to manage everything delicately. While we can make it pay and make it work we’ll stay dairying. We’ve really enjoyed the lifestyle and the people and it has been very rewarding.”