A further slowing in growth
When the Australian Government removed price reserve guarantees on wool in 1991, the resulting price collapse meant long-standing beef, lamb and wool producers Julie and Sandy Cameron had to either innovate or accept that their business would perish.
Meredith Dairy’s evolution from a beef, lamb and wool farm to a gourmet sheep and goat dairy that boasts award-winning products and global recognition.
In 1991, when the Australian Government removed price reserve guarantees on wool, many sheep farmers shifted their focus to prime lamb. Subsequent over-supply however meant that lamb prices soon dropped, a double blow for sheep farmers across the country.
Determined to find a long-term income-producing opportunity, Julie and Sandy Cameron set about researching value-add primary produce opportunities that would give them more price control. As they struggled to set a course for their future, a chance meeting with an advocate for French Roquefort sheep milk cheese gave them the idea of milking their sheep.
Combining Sandy’s animal husbandry background with Julie’s farming experience and passion for sustainability, Meredith Dairy was born.
The business launched with a Meredith Dairy Greek yoghurt and a Meredith blue cheese, both made with sheep’s milk. The products’ unique tastes and market appeal saw them taken up by high-end Australian restaurants, turning the business into a gourmet brand, recognised for its quality of flavour and authenticity, according to the Camerons.
“Authenticity is at the heart of our business,” explains co-owner and manager Julie Cameron. “A little-known fact is that Greek yoghurt is actually made from sheep’s milk. Many supermarket products aren’t the real thing at all. To emulate the consistency of Greek yoghurt without using sheep’s milk, many other producers strain, thicken or add substances to cow’s milk to achieve that same texture – whereas we just make the yoghurt out of real sheep’s milk.”
In 1995 the Camerons were approached by a distributor with a need for goat dairy products. He encouraged them to expand into goat farming, explaining there was a growing market for alternatives to cow’s milk.
The Camerons’ ensuing move into goat’s milk involved much relearning and many mistakes in the early days. The goats’ fussy tastes and environmental vulnerability make them higher maintenance, but the Camerons now have great affection for their flock.
“Goats are completely different to sheep,” explains Julie. “They prefer not to graze, they like to browse and they don’t perform in a paddock like a mob of sheep. They also don’t have a woolly coat so they suffer from the cold and when that happens they lose milk production. Also, while people say goats will eat anything, in fact they don’t – they need high quality nutrition, especially protein and fibre. We enjoy our goats. We’re farmers first.”
Despite the goats’ curious habits, goat products have helped build Meredith into an international culinary success. The dairy was crowned 2016 Champion in class at the Australian Grand Dairy Awards and now, in its 26th year, the Camerons’ Meredith Dairy range includes a variety of sheep and goat products, the most popular being a marinated goats cheese, as well as authentic sheep milk yoghurts and curds, sold around the world.
Promotional activities in supermarkets extend to tastings to lure customers who may be unsure about these new dairy products. Social media is regularly used to publish new recipe ideas; chorizo and goats cheese with smashed peas on sourdough, for example, or lamb shoulder with caramelised vegetables and goats cheese.
Leveraging Sandy’s veterinary background and animal husbandry expertise, the couple spent two decades scientifically researching milk production and animal characteristics to improve their flock’s genetics. Meredith Dairy’s 9000-strong goat flock now produces quality milk year-round and has achieved productivity gains each year.
“One reason we’ve been successful is our year-round supply,” comments Julie. “In Europe the sheep and goat dairy industry shuts down for several months of the year. With our range of products, we have to be available on the shelf all year round, so we milk every day and our milk is processed every day.”
The Camerons have seven farms contributing to its supply, all located near the cheese factory, but each operating as an independent dairy with its own staff and milking sheds.
“The main goal of having many smaller farms rather than one bigger farm is to ensure the animals are well looked after,” explains Julie. “We avoid having too many animals on one site and can manage milking times to around two hours, so the animals aren’t confined for too long. It also helps with risk management, if one farm suffers a setback.”
The Camerons’ passion for sustainability is as valuable to the dairy’s reputation as the quality of its products. Their enthusiasm is visible throughout the farm and also acknowledged externally – the dairy won the Landcare Farm of the Year Award in 2009.
“We are trying to produce a closed circle in terms of sustainability. We have a tree-planting program every year to ensure we have enough trees at any one time to offset our carbon usage. We also use renewable energy where we can, and have installed solar panels, energy-efficient equipment and a wood-fired boiler .We burn wood waste from the farm, allowing us to limit our gas and electricity use in the cheese factory. All our hot water is generated from burning this waste timber.”
Meredith Dairy’s story is about strength, determination and adaptability, leveraging their core skills and passions to create new opportunities for their future. As with any new venture, it wasn’t without risk and uncertainty or courage.
“There was certainly risks involved, but as one journalist said at the time of the wool collapse, sheep farmers had to ‘innovate or perish’,” remembers Julie.
And innovate they did. From their beginning as sheep and goat’s milk novices, the business today has a reputation for hand-made, superior quality and environmentally responsible specialty dairy products, marketed through high-end Australian restaurants, supermarkets and gourmet providores in Australia and around the world.
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