Rivers of Meander Valley Milk

Roy Thomas

Rivers of Meander Valley Milk

April 2016 | Joanne Eisemann

A NOTORIOUSLY hard market to crack, Meander Valley’s Ashgrove began selling fresh milk in 2008, selling just one crate per week. Now, just a few years later, they distribute up to 100,000 litres of bottled milk each week.

“Each year grew hugely on the year before,” comments Roy Thomas, Ashgrove’s Milk Sales and Distribution manager. “That’s why Ashgrove Farms partnership decided to buy another farm because we were stealing milk from the cheese makers!”

Ashgrove expanded from two to three dairy farms to meet the growing demand and now milk 1800 hundred 50% Jersey, 15% Brown Swiss and 35% Friesian Holstein cows.

The high percentage of Jersey in the herd genetics gives their milk the rich creamy flavour that consumers have come to enjoy.

As a ‘boutique’ product the level of fat content being a little higher than other brands is their main point of difference, that and their grass to glass assurance of quality.

The farms, along with some locally leased land, now cover around 2,000 hectares and employ 13 permanent staff as well as many local contractors working on site each day.

Ashgrove Cheese Pty Ltd 80+ employees work in the factory bottling milk and cream or making cheese and butter.

“There is not a lot of employment in this area” says Roy, “so people tend to stay in their jobs.”

Like most rural businesses there is some seasonality to milk production with the fat content and volumes lower during winter and very little cheese is made during this time.

Ashgrove keep the majority of their workforce employed during this period recognising the high cost of training new staff. As a result, employee turnover is low.

Before coming to Ashgrove, Roy worked 15 years for Woolworths. “I enjoyed working at WW” he says, “but I prefer working for a small family business where I see the owner every day.”

This ‘family’ ethos runs right through the business with much of the marketing being conducted at a local level using social media, attending events and speaking with people face to face as much as possible.

The decision to bottle milk in plastic was a safety one. If just one bottle had broken in the factory every bit of produce (cheese and milk) would have had to have been thrown out to protect consumer safety, making glass bottles unviable.

Although Ashgrove Cheese is sold nationwide, all fresh milk is sold in Tasmania.

“We trialled getting it to the mainland,” explains Roy. “It wasn’t so much the time by factor as milk has a 15 day shelf life, its the cost getting it across that stretch of water. The numbers didn’t stack up.”

The Ashgrove farm store, part of the Tasmanian Tasting Trail is becoming an icon in itself.

Last year attracting 140,000 visitors, during Meander Valley Gazette’s visit to the site, the buzz was palpable.

Marketing and Communications Manager, Anne Bennett, provided this visitor breakdown: “75% are Australian of which NSW, Vic and Qld dominate.  International visitors fluctuate with the global economy.

“We have seen a 25% increase in Asian tourists from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, and are welcoming many Americans and Chileans this summer too.”

Mike Moores