One extended Tasmanian farming family, like many during the late 1980s, had been knocked to the canvas a couple of times and when the wool reserve price scheme collapsed it was almost one body blow too many. But in the Rocky tradition, they got up, copped a few more knocks and then turned it around.
You have to take your hat off to any farming enterprise that stares industry in the face and decides to go and do its own thing. And few have done it better than the Bennett family’s Ashgrove Cheese in downtown Tasmania. Their production HQ at Elizabeth Town on the Bass High way has become a mecca for locals and tourists looking for a piece of this success story, of rubbing shoulders with the people who do it all – – from cows chewing grass to people stocking up on cheese.
The Bennett name is something of an institution in the neighborhood, has been for generations, but the name really started going up in lights from 1983 when brothers Michael and John and wives Maureen and Connie founded the Ashgrove Farms.
Initially , Team Bennett continued down the traditional path of dairy, sheep/wool and vegetable cropping.
Then the late ’80s ignited a series of disasters rather than setbacks.
First the wool reserve price scheme collapsed, sending that industry into a nosedive that would take more than a decade from which to recover and then the vegetable industry went pear shaped, driving the families towards a dairy-only operation.
And there wasn’t too much here to warm the cockles of anyone’s hearts because the Tasmanian dairy industry wasn’t exactly ‘she’ll be apples’ – as it were.
The Bennetts had a quality herd producing buckets of milk but were trapped by the low commodity prices that dominated the island’s industry.
But today Anne Bennett, who is now the family communications guru, says they can look back on those years, as scary as they might have been at the time, as the formative years of what the business was to become.
“John and Michael’s goal in establishing the factory was to gain independence from the system, to be price setters not price takers,” Anne said.
“They believed they could produce premium quality cheese by on-farm value adding using farm milk and the first step was investing in a new 50-unit rotary dairy in 1990,” she said.
“In 1993 the Ashgrove Cheese factory was built nearby with the first vat of cheese rolling off the production line in the November of that year.”
Since then the Bennetts (there is now a second generation joining the founders at the helm) have turned their very small kernel of an idea – and not insignificant gamble on their own abilities – into something truly astonishing.
The factory has kept growing, the volume of milk being poured in one end and the award winning products being pushed out the other end increasing exponentially.
The factory store (the aforementioned mecca) opened in April 1994 giving loyal customers and curious tourists an entrée to the whole shooting match – not only can they shop they can also see how the cheese is made.
And Team Bennett left no stone unturned in getting everything right for their little business that grew and grew.
Michael’s daughter Jane would spend two years in England learning the craft of making county cheddar cheeses then came home and launched Ashgrove’s foundation range of English county style and cheddar cheeses.
General manager (and director) Richard Bennett also studied cheese making and after undertaking formal training returned to the business in 1999.
“Together with subsequent cheesemakers who have joined us we have worked to develop and produce our premium quality range,” Anne added.
“By 2001, that cheese operation had grown sufficiently to enable the business to be separated from the Ashgrove Farms farming operation,” she said.
“The Ashgrove Cheese Company was established in 2001 by the original husbands and wives team and Ashgrove Farms continues to be the main supplier of milk to the cheese factory.
“In 2008 we started bottling fresh milk and cream for the Tasmanian market and by Christmas 2011 a new factory was completed, more than doubling the capacity of the bottling plant and cheese packing operations.
“In 2012 Ashgrove Farm Milk won a number of awards including best farm light milk at the Dairy Industry Association of Australia awards.
“While we are proud of all the awards we have won we were particularly delighted in 2015 to win the prestigious Sydney Royal Show champion butter for the Ashgrove Traditional Butter as well as gold medals for our Farmhouse Butter, Unsalted Butter and Herb & Garlic Butter.
“In 2016 our Ashgrove Tasmanian Farm non-homogenised milk and traditional cloth aged cheddar were both awarded national gold at the Dairy Industry Association of Australia awards.
In 2017 the factory was expanded with the goal of tripling cheese production to 1500 tonnes a year and Ashgrove’s Havarti-cheese-infused jalapeño chilli beat entries from across the country to take out the Dairy Industry Association of Australia’s (DIAA) most innovative product award.
“Last year John Bennett AM was named the ABC Rural and Kondinin Group’s Australian Farming Legend of the year in recognition of his work,” Anne added.
She said the cornerstone of the business is in committed family members and a great team of locals who take enormous pride in the making of premium dairy products.
And an uncanny ability to predict where the market is going – before the market or most players even realise it is going anywhere.
Anne said the evolution of the Ashgrove enterprise has refined its ability to stay competitive through diversification of products to match consumer trends and the implementation of an agile business model for market resilience.
“Our ability to identify our core capabilities alongside our limitations is critical to our future success,” Anne explained.
“In 2017, the Ashgrove factory was certified by NASAA Organic: Australian and International Organic Certifier to process organic milk into premium value organic dairy products,” she said.
“Another example of our business sending our customers the message we seriously value the quality of our brand as well as demonstrating its sustainability.
“This year we have continued our commitment to product development and Ashgrove launched the first Australian made, shelf-stable natural cheese snack called Ashgrove AmazeBalls
“This innovative technology from Canada has allowed us to pop the Ashgrove farm cheese through a dehydration process creating the crunchiest, munchiest balls of cheese you have ever tasted.
“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.”
So if you are a Taswegian, or are heading down there for a holiday, don’t miss Ashgrove Cheese (and it would be pretty hard to do, apart from its highway location it is also surrounded by a herd of psychedelic cows (the result of a school competition).
Once again just that little bit different.
It might have started with the milk but circa 2018 the Bennett family is like the cat that also got the cream.
Ashgrove Tasmanian Farm
6173 Bass Highway
Elizabeth Town Tas
P: (03) 6368 1105
Article Andrew Mole – Small Farming Magazine August 2018