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Farming: Putting your money where your mouth is

03 May 2018

Two bold experiments by dairy farmers in the South Island have closed recently. They were attempts by dairy farmers to take their product direct to market. Happy Cow in Rangiora and Retro Organics in Tuturau, Southland.

Might they resurrect themselves in some new format? In their original form, at least, they have been wound down although there are expectations that Retro Organics may be sold and re-surface with a new owner. Happy Cow is exploring a crowd funding option and it too may come back to life with a different capital structure.

What went wrong and what can we learn from these experiences?

Robin Greer of Retro Organics says that there is a huge demand from people wanting to deal directly with the farmer and personal health issues played a part in their decision to wind down and put the operation up for sale.

With Happy Cow, owner Glen Herud said that it was a lack of capital that has closed him down.

It got me thinking. My family is a consumer of organic dairy products. We started buying raw milk from Holy Cow up behind Port Chalmers a number of years ago and adored their product. We bought Retro Organics milk and cheese from a local health food shop in Dunedin for a while but didn’t persist. I am not sure why. Lately we only buy Lewis Road Creamery organic milk and Clearwater organic yoghurt from the supermarket and it is very convenient to pick it up in the weekly shop.

Once last winter when Lewis Road couldn’t supply our Dunedin supermarkets due to a lack of supply I wrote a letter of complaint to the company. I thought it might be that the South was being neglected and I was desperate for their milk.

I don’t know how typical our family are as dairy consumers. We are a sample of one. But for me, the price of great quality dairy food is not an issue. If I really want good quality food I will pay for it. If it is too expensive I will eat less of it, but I will still buy it. I have never looked at the price of Lewis Road Creamery milk in the supermarket. I suspect it is twice or three times the price of the standard alternative. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am an advocate of their product and will support them till the cows come home! Would I pay even more? Yes, of course. It is a wonderful food of its type and it should be expensive, and you only need a little bit. I remember when milk was so cheap we used to tip it down the sink without thinking.

I suspect Lewis Road Creamery have survived and prospered because of their marketing ability. They are obviously not small-scale personal producers who know every cow they milk. But I am not driven primarily by animal welfare. I want something that tastes great, is good for me and is good for the environment. Animal welfare is fourth in my reckoning.

My milk certainly doesn’t have to be cheap. If I want something cheap I will drink water. No-one has to drink milk. It is a luxury product, or should be. Same with yoghurt and cheese.

I also drink almond milk from time to time, but I prefer to make it myself rather than buy it. It is a real luxury. Homemade fresh almond milk is something to behold, but it is probably a year since I made it.

In the United States there was a reduction of 2.5% in the sales of organic milk in 2017 as consumers shifted to plant-based alternatives like soya and almond milk. This has resulted in an over-supply of organic milk and prices have fallen to the farmer. I guess this sort of volatility is expected as consumer tastes trend this way and that. What is interesting is that the consumption of standard milk in the United States fell by nearly double that for organic milk in 2017. I know where I would rather be. As a milk producer, my decision would not be based on returns; it would be based on my values and I would adjust to whatever the commercial reality was at the time.

Keep asking great questions …

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