Imagine a long-haired, bearded hippy, confused about his place in the world, knowing only his love of the land and dairy farming.
Imagine this young man, with his head full of spirituality, crystals, and organic farming methods returning home onto the family farm and trying to farm conventionally like his parents and neighbours.
Imagine him sitting in on discussions held by successful farming neighbours in the 1980’s where they discussed fertilisers, and poisons to kill weeds, poisons to kill cattle ticks, poisons to kill buffalo flies, poisons to control the wild dogs and hormones and worming drenches, and antibiotics to cure everything else.
That bearded hippy was me. I tried to join them at farming this way. Only it felt so wrong.
When my brother and I took over the family farm we decided to try something new, much to our father’s horror. We decided to farm Biodynamically. It meant no chemicals, no artificial fertilisers and certainly no poisons. Being enthusiastic young men we went cold turkey, and stopped spraying out the fertilisers and replaced it with natural Biodynamic preparations.
It was a bad move.
The land was an addict, unable to function without constantly being force fed urea, and other salty nitrogenous fertilisers. Imagine the look on our fathers face when he came home from a trip around Australia to find his once lush, productive, conventional farm now brown and covered in weeds.
We certainly had some interesting family discussions that day!
But we kept at it. We continued to research Biodynamics and through much trial and error, discovered that biodynamic farming worked perfectly when the soil was remineralised, diverse legume based pastures were established and an appropriate crop rotation was applied.
It was simple really. Pioneers make heaps of mistakes and we just happened to make all of them.
By 1995 we were farming biodynamically but still sending our milk to the local cooperative for processing. We probably would have continued farming that way as it was a profitable and easy way to farm.
However the government created change by deregulating the dairy industry in 2000 and turned the dairy industry on its head. Supermarkets became the price setters and the dairy industry in Queensland and New South Wales went into decline. Two hundred dairy farmers on the Atherton Tablelands became sixty very rapidly as prices plummeted, while costs rose and confidence in dairying evaporated.
It was hard on the dairy farmers who were forced out of the industry, and harder on the local community that lost jobs, services, shops and a reason to be.
Rob and Dan packing Quark
It was at this time that Dan and I thought we could try value adding to our milk. We both love to cook and decided that cheese making couldn’t be that hard. Could it?
We tried to borrow some money from the banks to set up a small milk-processing factory. However land prices had crashed and the banks’ preference was that we reduce our debt rather than borrow more money.
Eventually we raised the money in other ways. We learnt that when someone in a position of authority says no, we are simply asking the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time.
This was the very beginning of an incredibly steep learning curve.
We were right, it wasn’t difficult to learn how to make cheese or yoghurt.
However it was incredibly difficult learning how to run a dairy processing business no matter how small it was.
We had to wrap our heads around factory construction, negotiating with banks, food safety compliance, human relations, distribution, warehouses and refrigerated trucks, marketing, cold calling retailers, accounting software. But somehow we did.
Financial literacy and learning how to make a profit took much longer
Rob, Brian and Gail, packaging yoghurt
We really worked hard those first few years. Not only were we milking the cows and making silage, but we also helped make the cheese and yoghurt. When that was done we piled it all into the car and then took it Rusty’s markets in Cairns to sell on the weekends.
Luckily we were still reasonably young and dark circles around our eyes was simply a badge of work well done.
We might have stayed a boutique cheesery if our local milk processor, who was still getting the majority if our milk, suddenly decreed that we could no longer supply two processors i.e. them and us. We certainly didn’t want to shut down at this stage. So we decided to pack our own milk and make cheddar. Suddenly demand for our products went through the roof. It was the best thing that could have happened to us but also the scariest.
Being weaned off of any nipple can be very traumatic. Without a safety net every decision suddenly becomes very important.
As time went on and demand for our milk grew, we started to take on more biodynamic farmers. Bill and Kelly Hamilton near Ravenshoe were the first to join us and were quickly followed by the Drury family near Malanda.
Brain and Gail, cutting and packaging cheese by hand
Four years ago we took the bit between our teeth and decided to purchase more farms to meet the ever growing demand for our product. A property became available at Windy Hill near the windmills and we started it on its path to conversion to Biodynamics. This was a boon for me as I had been stuck as CEO in the office and Factory and now had an opportunity to farm again. There is nothing more satisfying than converting nitrogen fertilised monocultures into diverse robust vibrant pastures that are not reliant on continuous inputs.
Dan and I jumped into this business feet first, with no thoughts beyond happy cows, healthy soil and well paid farmers. We have learned a lot along the way, but the best lesson I learned was to never give up, to visualise the end you require, and somehow it works out if you are persistent.
With another generation of Watson’s joining our ranks our story is just at it’s beginning. I can’t wait to see what our children will bring to the table. Come and join the journey as we work together to build a sustainable future for our land, the community and the integrity of our food.