At a time when Tasmanian dairy farmers were some of the most poorly paid in the world, the Bennett family decided to innovate and buck the trend.
Brothers Michael Bennett and John Bennett AM, with their wives Maureen and Connie, formed the Ashgrove Farms partnership in 1983.
Their aim was to protect themselves from the machinations of the global dairy markets by creating their own products and markets.
Unlike now, where the global share trading markets can be accessed online, warnings about international markets moving up and down were slower to trickle through.
As a 19-year-old in the 1960s, John Bennett won a trip to Europe as the Young Tasmanian Farmer of the Year, Ashgrove Cheese communications manager Anne Bennett said.
“He travelled with a small group of people and was exposed to what was going on on the other side of the world with on-farm cheesemaking and value adding,” Ms Bennett said.
Instead of “going around in circles” running their business based on market forces and accepting the low income dairy farmers had come to expect, they used John Bennett’s knowledge of on-farm cheesemaking to innovate.
They decided to produce premium cheese on the Elizabeth Town Farm using milk from Ashgrove Farms.
To do this they invested in a 50-unit rotary dairy in 1990 and then built a cheese factory on site during winter 1992 when the cows were dry.
Michael Bennett bought equipment from a closed mine at Rossarden and he, with his brother and nephew Paul, built the factory in the paddock that borders Bass Highway.
“The first vat of cheese rolled off the production line in the November of that year,” Ms Bennett said.
“John and Michael’s goal in establishing the factory was to gain independence from the system, to be price setters not price takers.”
Eager to build on their initial cheese success, Michael’s daughter Jane spent two years in England learning to make cheddar cheese, which led to the launch of Ashgrove Cheese’s foundation range.
“Jane was one of the first female cheesemakers,” Ms Bennett said.
“John and Michael are very supportive of women in business and the family works at events, in the shop and on the farm.
“They always put the kids at the front, but Michael still works in the shop and John works behind the scenes.”
Keeping it in the family, employing skilled Tasmanian staff and working to their strengths has proven a successful strategy for the Bennetts, but the founders and their children have used business nous to grow their brand beyond Tasmanian markets.
It’s all about adding value and maintaining our resilience to escape global dairy price swings and remain as price setters, not takers, which was a major driver of the whole business when it first started 35 years ago.
Ms Bennett cites flexibility, forward planning, being willing to take risks and doing their numbers as positive factors in the brand’s evolution.
The Ashgrove Cheese founders built the factory to produce 300 tonnes of cheese in the 1990s, knowing that was where they planned to be in the future.
“Ashgrove is like a DNA in us in that we’re looking at what’s going on in Tasmania, but also what’s happening at a national and international level,” she said.
“We are always building for what the future is going to look like. We understand our core capabilities.”
In 2001 the cheese business was separated from the dairy farm business, making Ashgrove Cheese and Ashgrove Farms two entities.
Ashgrove Farms supplies the milk to the cheese factory, with Ashgrove Cheese producing and marketing cheese, along with butter, milk and ice cream.
Demand for Ashgrove’s premium butter had increased over the past five years and automating part of the process meant the business could meet demand better.
Eager to meet consumer trends, Ashgrove expanded its product offering again this year by launching AmazeBalls, a dehydrated cheese snack.
The idea for AmazeBalls came from Anne Bennett when she was thinking of new product ideas in 2012.
“I went to Google looking at global food trends and identified food technology using milk,” she said.
The technology Ms Bennett found in Canada had the capacity to dehydrate cheese to create crunchy balls that could be marketed as a snack.
After some product development and testing Ashgrove launched AmazeBalls, using its cheddar and havarti cheese offcuts.
“We try to have no waste at Ashgrove and using offcuts minimises waste,” she said.
AmazeBalls’ popularity has played into a building consumer movement towards natural snacks, like beef jerky, popcorn and nuts.
Ashgrove Cheese capitalised on that movement by creating a new product that reflected what consumers were now eating.
“We needed to diversify in a highly competitive environment. Ashgrove is the only company in Australia that can produce this,” Ms Bennett said.
“It’s all about adding value and maintaining our resilience to escape global dairy price swings and remain as price setters, not takers, which was a major driver of the whole business when it first started 35 years ago.”
AmazeBalls have been selling well in Tasmania and at subsequent launches in mainland states and Ashgrove plans to have them available nationally within 12 months.
Two generations in and the Bennett family business proves Ashgrove remains competitive through product diversification, matching consumer trends and staying agile in a changing market.
“We are insulated from global commodity markets, which means we will continue to be a sustainable business,” Ms Bennett said.
To continue on the inventive theme, Ashgrove is developing its Elizabeth Town factory and shop with a $1.19 million state-of-the-art dairy door and visitor complex.
Construction will see the existing shop and factory almost double in size with experiential, retail, food and outdoor areas that link Ashgrove’s dairy products direct to the farm.
“There is a place for Tasmanian family-owned businesses in the marketplace, and farming family businesses too.”