Sustainable practices drive dairy farm’s success

Dairy farmer John Fairley has built Country Valley into a successful niche brand. He explains how sustainable practices are helping him to cut costs and attract premium prices.

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The Fairley family has owned the same farm in Picton, an hour southwest of Sydney, since 1855. But, when the Australian government deregulated the dairy industry in 2000, John Fairley knew that it was too small to survive.

“With just 130 hectares we were limited to a herd of between 100 and 120 cows,” he says. “Any more than that would be bad for both the animals and the environment.”

He and his wife Sally started thinking about new ways of doing business.

“We decided to acquire our own processing facility and establish a new brand name, Country Valley,” Fairley continues. “By 2004 we were producing milk, yoghurt and cream and now we’re also diversifying into cheese. We found that many people are prepared to pay more for a premium-quality product produced in a sustainable way – for example, we’re getting nearly twice the price of the cheapest milk on the supermarket shelves.”
Fairley supplies about 100,000 litres of milk a week to the local, Sydney and Canberra markets.

“We milk 110 cows of our own twice every day and we also process milk for like-minded local farmers,” he says. “This is not only good for business but supports our community.”

Country Valley products are now sold in Woolworths, Coles and IGA Supermarkets as well as farmers’ markets and speciality grocers such as Thomas Dux and Fratelli Fresh. They also supply cafes and restaurants including Sydney’s Three Blue Ducks in Bronte and Glebe Point Diner. Over the past four years, sales have risen by 45 per cent – the processing plant now generates close to 90 per cent of their income. And Fairley believes that social media is helping to drive business growth.

“It’s impossible to put an exact figure on it but, with 1200 followers on Facebook, 500 on Instagram and 2000 on Twitter, we know we’re reaching a huge potential market,” he says. “One post was shared so many times it would have hit tens of thousands of people around the world – we even heard from an ecological farming group in Estonia. It’s a great way to tell our story and share information and it costs us nothing.”

Fairley also welcomes visitors to the farm.

“We have had everyone from farmers interested in sustainable practices to industry groups, academics, food writers, food stylists and chefs,” he says. “We explain the importance of healthy soil and let them taste the difference between our products and cheaper alternatives.”

Quality milk

Typically for someone of his generation, Fairley’s father believed that chemical fertilisers and pesticides were the way of the future.

“When I took over the soil wasn’t healthy,” says Fairley. “We’ve been fixing that by going back to the way my grandfather farmed. We spread nothing on the pastures but chicken and cow manure and mulch made from green waste out of Sydney. We’re saving a lot of money on fertiliser and all of the natural bugs in the soil have regained a healthy balance. The worms have come back, too.”

They have also been increasing the carbon content of their soil; controlled field trials have shown a rise of 25 per cent over the past 10 years.

“All of this is reflected in the quality of the milk,” says Fairley. “We won the 2008 President’s Medal from the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW for our natural yoghurt, and we were the most successful milk exhibitor at the 2011 Sydney Royal Easter Show, making us the first small company ever to win that prize.”

Sustainable ways to cut costs

The Fairleys use energy-efficient technology to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

“This is also cutting our costs – every time we do something green we save money,” says Fairley. “Most of the power we need in the dairy is now produced by a solar unit on the roof and we’re investigating more extensive solar systems because the inputs will always be free. We’re also thinking about building a renewable energy plant so we can move away from fossil fuels because they are bound to become more scarce and expensive in the future.”

All of the water from the processing plant is recycled for irrigation, and they’re looking into more environmentally-friendly bottling options, such as incorporating recycled plastic. These initiatives are being recognised by the wider community – Fairley was named Innovative Farmer of the Year at the Camden Show in 2012 and was a finalist in the 2013 New South Wales Farmer of the Year awards.

A long family history

Fairley’s son Tom is now farming alongside his father – the seventh generation to work the same plot of land.

“My ambition for the next 10 years is to train him to take over,” says Fairley. “Like us, he believes that the future lies in sustainable farming practices and being independent of the grid.”

More from NAB:
A diverse family business built on sustainable practices
NAB Agribusiness
NAB’s Natural Value strategy