A few weeks after Sallie Jones’ dairy farmer father took his own life, a crisis struck the industry in which he had worked for decades.
One of Australia’s biggest dairy processors, Murray Goulburn, retrospectively cut its farmgate milk prices and rival Fonterra Australia followed suit.
The cuts in April and May of 2016 meant Sallie’s family friend Steve Ronalds, a fifth-generation dairy farmer who grew up in Gippsland like her, lost $170,000 in a heartbeat.
As Sallie grieved and wondered how to carry on the legacy of her father – who created an ice cream brand in the 1980s – Steve was pondering what to do with his herd of Jersey cows.
A chance meeting at a farming event forged a solution for them both.
“I said, well I’d love to do an honour project for my Dad because he was such a pioneer and so ahead of his time – and you know, to create positive memories, rather than the devastation of what was,” Ms Jones told AAP.
“We had milk in a bottle three months later.”
The pair created the milk brand Gippsland Jersey, with the dual aim of selling milk that gives farmers a fair cut and promoting discussion about mental illness to help break down stigma.
They’re also committed to performing random acts of kindness for farmers.
That included distributing calendars to more than 1000 dairy households in Gippsland last year, bearing a dozen stories of farmers who have experienced mental health issues.
The pair’s leap of faith has paid off in spades, with the business growing by five per cent, month-on-month, since it was launched.
It produced 300,000 litres in its first year, and is now pumping about more than a million litres annually.
The business ensures farmers get a fair cut because it “owns the process” -bypassing big processors and instead using a smaller processing plant.
They have plans to have their own processing plant up and running within months at Sallie’s father’s old factory, having raised $100,000 through a campaign that sold milk in advance at an inflated rate.
Gippsland Jersey also charges major chains such as Woolworths the same for its product as it would a small regional milk bar.
“We’ve got the cows, the farms, the factory, and we sell direct,” Ms Jones said.
Ms Jones said she had known there was a market for more independent milk because she was managing the Facebook page of a farmers market when the dairy crisis broke, with many people contacting it asking what milk they could buy to support farmers.
She credits the authenticity of her and Mr Ronalds’ story with their success, saying they haven’t had to spend a dollar on advertising as the word has spread about Gippsland Jersey organically on social media.
The business also works collaboratively with the roughly 25 other small, independent milk brands in Australia, with representatives from each meeting at Melbourne’s airport a couple of months ago.
“We information-share, because we don’t actually see each other as competition,” she said.
“Our strength is in making sure that we all survive.”
Looking forward, Sallie sees opportunities everywhere, having walked away from a global food conference in Melbourne last week with a swag of potential leads for exporting Gippsland Jersey milk abroad.
“There is so much appetite for Australian dairy in the Southeast Asian market, it’s insane,” she said.
But wherever the milk is sent, their business is determined not to compromise on their values or fair prices.
Australia produced 8.8 billion litres of milk in 2018/19 down, 5.7 per cent on the previous year.
But Gippsland Jersey’s success has served as a source of hope for some dairy farmers, who have reached out to Sallie and Steve expressing interest in following their path.
She stresses to them the importance of getting your name out.
“It’s little brands like ours that are creating some positivity, and bringing some respect back to the dairy industry,” she said.
“I’ll tell you, every farmer is watching our story unfold … and they’re watching with interest.”