#ThankaFarmer for milk that’s making a difference
✍️ Rabobank Australia
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If there’s one thing better than the taste of farm fresh milk, it’s knowing that every sip is contributing to an exceptional cause.
And in the case of Tasmania’s Ashgrove Cheese Company, a partnership with the McGrath Foundation has already raised over $70,000 thanks to proceeds donated from its Ashgrove Pink skim milk.
For every litre of its Ashgrove Pink sold in Tasmania, a percentage is donated to the McGrath Foundation to help fund McGrath Breast Care Nurses in communities across Australia.
As well as being community conscious, the milk is also one of Australia’s tastiest, with the Ashgrove Pink winning Gold at both The Royal Tasmanian Fine Food Awards and Sydney Royal Cheese and Dairy Produce Show in 2021.
Last month, the company also donated $5 from every one of its custom gift hampers sold to the foundation.
Ashgrove Cheese Company – which, after 30 years remains family owned and run – is also combatting packaging waste in the retail sector by joining forces with The Udder Way to deliver fresh milk on tap.
The Udder Way, a game-changing Tasmanian innovation, aims to help save Australia’s environment from 100 million milk bottles, by supplying bulk milk via an 18kg keg.
It’s this commitment to consumers and the community that has underpinned the success of Ashgrove Cheese Company for over three decades, led by the Bennett family’s inter-generational vision for the industry.
Establishing an industry
Watching the craft of farm fresh cheese being churned, or tasting dairy products directly from the paddock have emerged as popular experiences as consumers becoming increasingly fascinated about where, and how, their food is produced.
Having established one of Australia’s first on-farm dairy factories and dairy doors, Ashgrove Cheese Company is now a well-established destination satisfying this growing paddock to plate appetite.
Yet flash back 30 years and Ashgrove’s Paul Bennett admits it was a very different reception the family received when it introduced the concept to Tasmania’s north west.
It was John and Michael Bennet, Paul’s father and uncle, who formed Ashgrove Farm Partnership during the 1980s to gain independence from low commodity prices by adding extra value to their milk.
"Milk prices for Australian dairy farmers were one of the lowest in the world, unemployment in the north west was high, and the Bennet brothers weren’t going to take it.”
“During a trip to Europe they’d seen how successful on-farm manufacturing and cheese houses were – however locally it certainly wasn’t perceived as anything trendy, in fact we were considered a bit daggy, and the concept was not well-received by our contemporaries,” Paul admits.
“People hadn’t heard of farmhouse cheese – cheese meant cheddar – and my father and uncle had to work hard at farmers markets and agricultural fairs to shift perceptions.”
Despite the initial reception, John and Michael’s fateful decision proved a stroke of genius.
Today, Ashgrove Cheese Company has a range of farm fresh butters, bottled fresh milk and cream and a nationally acclaimed selection of cheeses stocked in supermarkets Australia-wide.
Ashgrove is also a leader in the agri-tourism industry, with its dairy door – based on the tourist route between Davenport and Launceston – attracting up to 400,000 visitors annually.
Yet Paul is quick to stress that theirs is by no means an overnight success story.
“The profile we enjoy today is thanks to the hard work and vision across a number of generations, driven by the need to mitigate commodity price volatility and add value to our dairy business.”
“What previous generations couldn’t have predicted was the consequential success their ‘dairy door’ would have as a tourist platform, underpinned by the consumer’s growing curiosity surrounding food provenance.”
Back to the future
“My family has been farming in the region since 1908, and back in those days ‘pasture-raised’ and ‘organic’ were just the norm, and the community enjoyed high quality, natural products,” Paul said.
“Growing up I don’t think we took pride in the quality of produce we grew, it was just taken for granted that our butter was yellow and our milk was creamy – today there’s a real swing back to naturally produced products and it feels like we’ve come full circle,” Paul said.
“The less we do to our produce, the better it is – and there’s nowhere more capable of natural production than here in Tasmania.”
Paul explains that the region’s latitude – 41 degrees latitude south – is synonymous with the world’s leading food bowls, with New Zealand and South America sharing the latitude, and corresponding reputation for productive soils and climate.
“From lemons to grapes for wine to apples and root vegetables – the superiority in the nutrients and vitamins contained in of our soils is reflected in flavour.”
And for dairy production in particular, he believed the region remained unrivalled.
“Our cool temperate climate nurtures slow-growing grasses that are naturally packed with nutrition. As such you can fatten cattle here purely on grass and in turn our milk – and subsequent dairy products – are as natural, and flavoursome as you can get.”
Farming for flavour, and the future
While Ashgrove Cheese Company enjoys a national reputation, the foundations of the business remain entirely local.
The Bennetts’ farming operation spans across seven farms and five dairies, all managed “with respect for the soil, pastures, trees, wildlife and waterways”.
“We use traditional fertilisers and never use GMO anything and our cattle are free to roam for a low stress lifestyle,” Paul explains. “We also proactively fence off native bush and waterways to support a thriving local ecosystem.”
“By taking a localised approach to dairy farming, we keep food miles low - so low we can even measure it in metres – that’s our sort of provenance.”
With their 3,000 strong herd predominantly consisting of Holstein genetics, the Bennetts also run Jersey cattle, and favour the traditional old English dairy breeds for their longevity and ability to withstand the local environment.
A further source of pride is the fact they have bred Australia’s first poll herd of dairy cattle, negating the need for de-horning for even further animal welfare outcomes.
"If we want to produce a high value product, we need to ensure we maintain high values in terms of sustainability – not just of our land, but our animals also.”
The ‘MasterChef effect’
Educating consumers has evolved as a further core purpose of Ashgrove Cheese Company, with its dairy door offering visitors the opportunity to watch the resident cheesemaker at work behind glass panels.
Paul credits reality television programs such as ‘MasterChef’ for piquing the general public’s renewed interest in fresh produce.
"We really noticed a surge in popularity coinciding with the success of ‘MasterChef’ – people wanted to experiment with flavours and ingredients, and became increasingly curious regarding the background of their produce."
And he and believes you can’t get much closer to source than at the Ashgrove Cheese Factory.
"Ashgrove milk is collected fresh each day from the farms, and bottled at the on-farm factory, free from permeates, milk solids or diluents – and as low in milk miles as you can get.”
"Our cream is sourced from the creamy portion off the top of the milk, and bottled – that simple."
"Our butter is a beautiful, rich yellow, which suggests a higher content of beta-carotene, a nutrient naturally found in grass-fed cattle – compared to the more whiter hues of butter you see in the supermarket. This is the sort of general food knowledge that enlightens consumers and it’s knowledge we love to share."
During Covid the Bennetts used the down-time to complete a full-scale renovation on the dairy door, with the new premises an impressive, 5-star contemporary masterpiece, celebrating an industry steeped in tradition.
"When I see the facility today, and think of how far the family has come, and how the business has strengthened and grown through continual vision and value-adding opportunities, it makes me very proud,” Paul said.
"The fact that the general public have an opportunity for a genuinely behind-the-scenes experience – building a greater appreciation for dairy products and industry – is a terrific feeling, and it seems like the vision of our forefather’s has come to life."