Linking Sunshine Coast dairy with local consumers

By Rick Bayne

Australians’ love of coffee and interest in healthy drinks could provide a lifeline for dairy farmers on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

A pilot study into the state of dairying in the region and opportunities for growth along the supply chain is giving fresh hope to the local industry.

Dr Kathy Hastings, part of a group at the University of Sunshine Coast that specialises in food marketing, was asked in 2015 by Sunshine Coast Council to look at local food and agribusiness industries.

Her study identified the dairy industry as one of the region’s “nuggets”, even though it was in a distressed state, and a subsequent pilot program with Dairy Australia is looking at strategies to stimulate industry growth and improve local marketing.

The Sunshine Coast dairy sector processes about 80 million litres of milk per year and 45 per cent of goods produced locally are consumed locally.

Dr Hastings said that although the region had lost 66 per cent of its farmers since 2007 and most of those remaining were not confident about the future, research has identified positive opportunities.

“We have a large value-add component for our dairy industry, one of the highest in the east coast of Australia,” she said. “We have three milk processors, yoghurt makers, cheese and gelato companies and the Sunshine Coast has great paddock-to-plate opportunities.”

The pilot project has brought together players along the supply value chain line, including farmers, processors and retailers. “We started working with them as a cluster and talking about their issues and how we could help,” Dr Hastings said.

She admitted farmers weren’t confident about the opportunities but the research could change that perception.

“The research found the dairy industry is actually on the move and has quite a lot of opportunities opening up, particularly for the Sunshine Coast region and its independent processors,” Dr Hastings said.

A review of consumers found that they want to support local farmers, and retailers believe the most important attributes to consumers are taste, support for local farmers and region of origin.

Increasing demand — both locally and nationally — for natural and premium ingredients could play into the region’s attributes.

The country’s love of coffee could also be a significant player in reviving the local industry.

“Our coffee industry is worth about $70 billion and growing, and every one of those coffees needs milk,” Dr Hastings said. “We’re saving the dairy industry by drinking coffee.”

Early in 2018 the Sunshine Coast milk cluster will work with the local Coffee Guild to develop co-branding opportunities.

“We want something for the locals that we can test locally,” Dr Hastings said. “If it works here it can work elsewhere.”

The cluster is working with Sunshine Coast Council to implement the plan and will then work with Dairy Australia to do a broader Queensland study with a focus on potential exports to the Pacific and Asian countries.

Dr Hastings said the dairy cluster would also look at high protein drinks, fermented drinks and specialty cheeses “That’s where trends are going,” she said “There is interest in health and indulgence and increasing demand for convenient, healthy and satisfying snacks and growing concern about processed and artificial ingredients.”

“We’re encouraging the industry to go upmarket to get to the top end and follow the trends and believe they are well placed locally.”

Dr Hastings said that improving insights into consumer attitudes towards milk products and improving local marketing could help the industry.

One local manufacturer had increased sales by 70 per cent on the back of a local social media campaign.

“We don’t know what potential it has to turn the industry around but we do know there’s hope. Most within the value chain feel the sector has opportunities with good quality products and better distribution and local marketing.”

Potential “game changers” including an international airport at the Sunshine Coast, a new airport and dairy manufacturer at Toowoomba and even the arrival of Amazon could open more opportunities.