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Childhood dream comes true for WA dairy farmer

When Vicki Fitzpatrick was growing up in New Zealand she’d write letters to her journalist father begging him to become a farmer.

Forty years later living as a dairy farmer in Western Australia her dreams have exceeded all expectations.

Although from a science background, Vicki describes dairy farming as the biggest and most fulfilling challenge of her life.

“When I was about six, I used to write my dad letters at random times through the year and put them in the post box saying ‘please become a farmer’,” Vicki said.

Vicki’s family lived just outside Auckland, but her father wasn’t about to give up his journalism career for farming.

“His living was words but I always wanted to be farming. I was always interested in natural systems and how they work, animals, plant and animal interactions and breeding animals. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” she said.

Vicki did her undergraduate study in botany and zoology and a Masters in plant ecology.

She worked with Lincoln University in New Zealand running livestock trials for pharmaceutical companies, including trials looking at parasites in dairy cows, reaffirming her interest in dairying.

Vicki moved to Australia 16 years ago and worked in dairy programs with the Department of Agriculture in managing milk protein levels and milk composition research.

“It’s really nice to combine a science background with farming. It’s so useful understanding how living systems work and being able to apply that on the farm. I really get a kick out of that.”

Vicki moved into a consulting business, mostly working with dairy farmers but also doing contract research with the Department of Agriculture and CSIRO.

That was how she met her husband Luke, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from north of Bunbury.

“Someone in the Ag Department suggested his farm to visit for the milk composition research. Luke and I met at his dairy. We became good friends and it grew from there.”

Luke’s parents Darrell and Helen also live on the farm. 

Coming from New Zealand where dairy is ‘king’ and is widely admired, Vicki has had to contend with negative perceptions in Australia.

“You hear people say ‘you’ve got a science degree, what are you doing on a dairy farm?”

“That’s a real shock to me. This is the most challenging and technical business to manage.

“Dairy farming will take everything you’ve got and more. It takes all my brain power, all my time, and the same for Luke.”

Vicki hopes the Legendairy communications initiative will raise the profile and reputation of the industry and change that perception.

“I can’t imagine how farm businesses could manage without pretty hefty technical knowledge,” she said.

“We manage soil health to get the plants, manage the plants appropriately and everything around the cow’s lifestyle and production. I feel like we have a family of 300 elite athletes here and we have to keep them happy every day.”

The farm is relatively small and on flat land but it’s growing. The Fitzpatricks will soon be milking about 180 cows and are investing in a new dairy, reflecting their confidence in the industry after a tough period about four years ago.

“It gets wet in winter and we have a planned drought November to April but we have annual pastures suited to our climate and fertile soil. Luke’s family has ensured there are lots of trees, providing shade for the cows and an environmentally rich backdrop.”

Four years ago things looked bleak when the processors they were supplying went into receivership. They weren’t paid for more than three months. 

“It was hell. We were one day away from closing,” Vicki said.

“We thought we would have to do something else but it made us really focus on how much we want to be doing this. Brownes picked us up and they are a really ethical, supportive company to supply. We had to grow and be able to ride the bumps a bit better and be big enough to employ someone to help. We needed to have a different shape and we’ve got there. We really wanted this and we made it happen.”

They leased the property next door and changed to New Zealand genetics.

“We’re a pasture-based system and need small, efficient cows to turn grass into milk solids and get in-calf. Having American-based genetics where cows do best standing with their heads in a trough all day eating grain wasn’t best for our system.”

The land and herd size has grown 50 per cent.

“We’ve still got room to move but we’re here for the long haul.” 

Vicki is also encouraging a new generation of farmers.

“When our son Ben was two and a half I had him out in the paddocks teaching him about three-leaf stage grazing. Ben is more a machinery guy; Holly is keen on the animals.”

There are around 160 dairy farms in Western Australia and Vicki is surprised more people don’t recognise the industry’s opportunities. 

“We’re now short of milk and workers. We wouldn’t want to get any smaller but the people who are left are pretty dedicated. 

“Dairy farming offers so many opportunities to improve yourselves and your lives. There’s something in dairy for everyone.”

With two young children and a growing farm to run, there isn’t time for outside scientific work but Vicki isn‘t complaining. Together with Luke, they’re happily looking forward to a future in dairy.

“It’s brilliant. It’s lived up to expectations and more. I’m passionate about what we do. There are lots of challenges but that’s part of what makes it so satisfying,” Vicki said.

“Managing a family and a farm is the best thing in the world.”