Dairies making a comeback

THEY are a diverse bunch with experience in the police force, accounting, small business, water industry and as stay-at-home dads. But they have recently ditched these roles for a different kind of toil.

They are the human face of a transformation that has been quietly gathering momentum in the paddocks of northern Victoria this year. They are the next generation of dairy farmers in an industry making a comeback in the state’s north.

After more than a decade of drought – which closed many hundreds of dairy farms in northern Victoria – dozens of dairy farms have restarted in the region over the past 15 months.

Some of them had not seen a dairy cow for years. Some farms grew hay and other crops instead, others ran beef cattle, some were basically left vacant. Some dairy farmers retired, others moved to Queensland with their family and dairy herd or sold up (or tried to), moved into town and out of the industry.

Noel and Karen Furze and their children are just one of the many families restarting a dairy. They bought the first farm they inspected, a 61-hectare Kyabram property.

”We inquired about four or five of them,” he said. ”But what we found with those first ones is that we actually lined up to go and look at some of them, but the agent would ring back 10 minutes later and say, ‘Oh no, that farm’s just sold.’ These farms had been sitting there for months or years and then all of a sudden they were starting to move.”

There’s a hole in the kitchen roof of the farmhouse, while the roof of one hayshed is gone completely after it blew off. But the milking shed is just four years old, the property has potential and the Furzes couldn’t be happier.

”I reckon it could be one of those places, with a bit of work it could be a story-book farm,” Mr Furze told The Age during a farm tour.

He said the family had hoped to go back to dairy farming at the start of 2013 but that it seemed ”farms were as cheap as they were gonna get. There was water up the hills. So we figured in two years’ time confidence would be back, prices would be creeping back up and we’d probably miss the boat.”

Mr Furze had share-farmed with his parents for many years until 2009, when ”we ran out of drinking water for the cows”. The young family then moved to south-west Victoria for work. At about the same time another dairy farmer from northern Victoria was also pursuing a new job in the south-west.

Andrew Freemantle grew up on his parents’ dairy at Prairie and farmed with them for many years. But in 2008, he decided to get out. The family’s herd of about 200 dairy cows was sold and taken away in August 2008. It was a sad moment as the trucks left.

Mr Freemantle graduated from the Police Academy and became a country police officer. But a few months later he decided the police force was not for him. ”I decided to come back here. I like working with cows,” he said. ”It’s hard work but you’re your own boss.”

Milking recommenced on the property 16 weeks ago.The Freemantles and Furzes own two of 27 farms that have restarted this year in north-west Victoria and supply processor Murray Goulburn. Scott Wells, Murray Goulburn field services manager for the north-west, said 12 restarted last year and more were likely. The extra farms and better seasonal conditions means more milk is flowing. ”From the first of July this year we’re 13.5 per cent up [in volume] compared to the same period last year,” he said.

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