A family approach to value-adding

By Stephen Cooke

Venturing into branded products has not only enabled the Jones family to be a price maker, but means siblings Sophia, Caroline and Michael can all work on the family dairy farm.

And unlike other farms that have begun producing their own branded milk, the Joneses produce certified organic cheese, yoghurt, kefir and dairy beef under their Tarago Valley brand.

The family began producing yoghurt and selling at farmers’ markets two years ago but began producing cheeses and kefir (a cultured milk drink) about 12 months ago.

“We are only a small farm so we had to do something different to value-add our products,” Sophia said.

In a somewhat unexpected yet connected turn of events, the family began supplying organic milk to a yoghurt-maker who then offered to produce yoghurt for the Joneses to sell under their own label.

They began selling yoghurt and packaged dairy beef at farmers’ markets every weekend — they have recently reduced their commitment from four markets each weekend to two. It was at the farmers’ markets that they met a cheesemaker and decided to expand their range.

The processors were also producing kefir — a cultured milk drink packed with probiotics that is increasing in popularity — so they added this to their range as well.

Although farmers’ markets are the main market for the Tarago Valley products, they also sell some wholesale, to some local stores and through a distributor into Melbourne and Geelong.

Sophia and Caroline both sell at a market in Melbourne or Gippsland each Saturday and Sunday and Sophia says it’s good for the brand, for themselves and for farming in general.

It’s good to be able to deal direct with the public,” Sophia said.

“Customers get to taste your product and it gives them more of a connection with farmers. Getting feedback direct from customers is always helpful.”

The Tarago Valley name and branding was a family decision. The siblings and their parents, Rowan and Vicki, are all partners in CSM Organics. Caroline is responsible for marketing, including social media. Caroline and Sophia are more involved with Tarago Valley and the retail side while Michael manages pasture and crops.

Sophia milks during the week and Rowan and Vicki relieve her when she is off at farmers’ markets. She also raises all the calves and undertakes bookwork for the business and farm, sharing the distribution duties with Rowan.

“Mum and dad help a lot,” Sophia said. “It wouldn’t be possible without them. I’m still learning. I have a lot to learn about being a dairy farmer.”

The three siblings lease the three properties from their parents, who own the herd of 160 crossbreds. All milk for their own products comes from 50 cows on the Longwarry farm (about 1000 litres a day) while an additional 100 cows are milked on a second farm at Hallora.

Rowan and Vicki made the decision to go organic in 2008 and they became certified organic in 2012.

They rarely need to purchase feed as they have irrigation and produce all silage and hay on-farm, and run a lower stocking rate than the farm could sustain. They were forced to purchase some organic hay several years ago when it was particularly dry but this is rare.

Their herd is predominantly crossbreds, which perform better on the hills of the Hallora farm, although they try to run more Jerseys on the Longwarry farm. Jersey bulls are currently being put over the crossbred herd.

All bull calves are castrated, grown out and processed at 18 months to two years of age and sold as dairy beef in 8 kg to 10 kg packs under the Tarago Valley brand.

“It’s amazing how you get a whole string of bull calves and no heifers, and then a run the other way,” Sophia said.

It’s a much leaner meat than traditional beef and has proven popular with return buyers.

“We like to keep everything affordable so families can purchase it. Cutting out the middle person makes such a difference,” Sophia said.

They have sold dairy beef for five years and the decision to retain bull calves is an ethos as much as a value-adding decision.

“Mum doesn’t like sending bull calves off, but it’s also a commercial decision as you don’t get much for bull calves,” Sophia said. “There is good profit in bull beef so it’s worth it.”

They sell a mix of steaks, diced beef, roasts and mince for $17/kg. Mince has proven popular because it is leaner (and grass-fed) and they sell mince and diced beef in bulk to a commercial pie-maker in Gippsland.

The decision to sell their branded products proved particularly valuable with the milk price crash in 2016.

“We weren’t affected at all,” Sophia said. “Value-adding gives you a little bit more security as you can set your own milk prices and you’re not relying on someone else to tell you what milk prices are going to be.

“We agree on a suitable price with our factories that we’re both happy with. It gives you a lot more control over your own business.”