Small dairy farmers have not escaped the COVID-19 fallout, but artisan cheesemaker Cressida Cains believes there are “incredibly exciting” opportunities for her industry emerging from the pandemic.
“Australians are more interested than ever in the provenance of their food,” says the owner of Pecora Dairy, a small sheep milk dairy and cheesery in the New South Wales Southern Highlands.
“With us all being at home, and the borders being closed, people are changing their buying behaviour.
“They're starting to look for what's locally produced and considering a different offering from their usual routine. And now with home deliveries easily accessed from cheesemakers who are falling over themselves to get product out there, it's increasing awareness of exactly what the domestic cheese industry looks like.”
The rising inclination towards quality, home-grown produce has firmed up Cains’ long-held view that the ongoing viability of small dairies – which have steadily dwindled from more than 22,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 6000 amid challenging market conditions – could lie in a willingness to transform operations towards branded products, rather than being “price takers” by selling their milk to big processors.
“It’s a way for them to take back control of their own business and start being able to produce their own product, be in charge of their marketing and be far more in charge of their destiny,” says Cains, recently named the NSW winner of the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, sponsored by Westpac.
In an update late last month, Dairy Australia said underlying demand for dairy, including cheese, remains “relatively supportive” in Australia and internationally, as consumers spend more on groceries. But it warned “broader disruption” continues to take its toll, citing travel restrictions limiting face-to-face business development and trade negotiations, and export markets being restricted by limited outbound flights from Australia.
“A global economic slowdown is likely to impact overall demand for dairy and reduce purchasing power in key markets,” Dairy Australia said.
However, the government has labelled dairy critical to the community, and reduced imports of products due to supply chain disruptions is expected to be positive for Australia’s manufacturing industries.
Like many businesses, Cains – who established Pecora Dairy with her husband in 2011 and produces around nine tonnes of specialty cheeses annually from the milk of 150 East Friesian ewes – had to “completely change” operations, moving to an online sales and home delivery model to offset plummeting orders as restaurants, boutique retailers and farmers’ markets closed down to help stop the virus spread. But as one of only half a dozen sheep milk farmers in Australia and only 30 “farmhouse” cheesemakers nation-wide, demand remains solid.
“Around 40 per cent of our cheese goes to restaurants in both Sydney and Melbourne, and we lost that market immediately, and Carriageworks Farmers’ Market also closed. So that’s been very challenging,” says Cains.
“We are busier than we've ever been simply because it's a new way of doing business. Making home deliveries is pretty inefficient, quite frankly, but it's keeping us afloat and it will get us through.”
She says many independently owned and branded dairies in her local area have also seen a surge in demand, which she puts down to the newfound importance consumers are placing on choosing quality produce made by Australian farmers.
With a firm belief that the spike in interest on the provenance of food will last well beyond the pandemic, Cains has accelerated work on a side-project to help struggling small dairy farmers position themselves for a viable future. Within six months, she aims to launch a not-for-profit online platform, Dairy Cocoon, that will connect fellow small dairy farmers with the resources, mentors and community to help refine their business plan and transition to creating their own branded products.
She says the pre-pandemic idea for the platform came from her growing alarm at the number of small Australian dairy farms that have closed because they haven't been able to make a profit, while cheese imports continued to grow on a trajectory likely to see Australia become a net importer. Her models indicate that transforming 25 dairy farms over five years would create 190 direct and indirect jobs and $112 million economic benefit to the sector.
“When we think about dairy farming in Australia and that iconic image of, you know, the dairy farmer in an Akubra looking out over a field of cows, that is really in jeopardy. Once we've lost those small dairy farms, that's it. They're gone,” she says.
“So it's very important, that we look at other strategies to enable them to take control and I do genuinely believe there's huge opportunity for small dairy farmers to transform up the value chain.
“If I can make it easier even for just a few dairy farms to make that leap into producing their own branded product, then I really feel that my project's been a success.”
Cressida Cains is the NSW Winner of Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award sponsored by Westpac.