Friday, September 7, 2012

The Farmer Gregie far

I was recently asked to nominate for Dairy Farmer of the Year. While I did so - reluctantly, I felt quite deflated when I hadn't made the final. Bizarre! Only 3 finalists. Somehow, after compiling my story, I felt so confident that I was  a worthy finalist...if not winner!

Probably biased I know - I'm still so proud of my personal progress and that of our farm over the past couple of years. Here's my nomination.

Our current Dairy Operation is very much a family enterprise. The Dennis Family has owned and operated this farm as a dairy since the 1930’s. My Nan, Rita and grandfather Hal (who passed away before I was born), took ownership of the farm, and started their family almost eight decades ago. My Uncle Ray, and father Darrell, were both born onto this property, and have lived their entire lives here to date. Their wives, Aunty Rose, and Brenda (Mum), remain actively involved to this day also. I am third generation on this property, and fifth generation dairy farmer (to my knowledge). Now our marriage into its 18th year, with two fantastic children, my immediate family has offered great stability to my life. Particularly my wife Trish (who is a polar opposite personality type to me – having just done the Myers Briggs personality test), who keeps me grounded, and injects the structure when needed in my life.
The farm has seen many transitions – from the 20 cow herd, milked by hand in the 1930’s, through Box Bales – to a 6 a side Herringbone in 1972 – to the 50 platform Rotary and milking 360 cows in 1991(and being the second largest dairy in Queensland) – to leaving the dairy industry in 2003 as a direct protest against deregulated milk prices  – to re-entering in 2007 by rebuilding a 10 a side herringbone with second hand components and milking 120 cows – to installing 3 Lely Astronaut Robots in 2010 and increasing numbers to 200 cows  – and the installation of a 4th robot in 2011 – to today growing towards 250 milkers through natural increases. I’ve always looked outside the box, setting up a Mobile DJ business (Gregie DJ) in 2003 – I continue to do gigs today, into my 10th year. I also worked full-time as a Surveyors Assistant in 2007, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was seriously looking into becoming a Surveyor, at my then boss’ recommendation, when the opportunity to restart our dairy arose. A Surveyor that I did a lot of field work with had mixed feelings when he heard of my decision, as he told me, “You are the best ‘Chainman’ I’ve ever worked with.” I had a lot of respect for Doran, so that meant a great deal to me.
Although my direct involvement in the farm has been since leaving school in 1986 – it has been somewhat stifled. My father and uncle have remained heavily involved in daily operations, to this day. While that has offered great stability, it has acted as an unintentional ‘hand brake’ over the past few years. As they start to wind down, they only see the work involved in future projects – rather than the benefit. In hindsight, this may have led to the best thing that has happened in my life – a diagnosis of Clinical Depression in January, 2010. My impending recovery put a lot of pressure on my family and the farm. During this time however, I was absolutely committed to do whatever was necessary – taking on board professional psychological advice. This time of reflection and self- analysis gave me a great insight into where I’ve come from – where I’m heading – and who I am. As tough a time as it was, I immersed myself in a couple of major projects. Firstly completing High School (with High Destinctions) through USQ Distance Education, at the age of 40. I was accepted into the Psychological Science intake in 2010, as I felt an empathy towards others suffering from mental health issues. However I declined that invitation, as my outlook changed dramatically while I was on the mend, and I began to see endless opportunities on the very farm that I thought was ‘marking time’.
Only 4 months into the recovery process, I heard that work had started on the first robotic dairy (De Laval VMS) in South-East Qld. Robotics had always interested me, but I had falsely believed they were not a viable option in the past – based solely on opinion. So I immediately began researching the options online – believing the Lely Astronaut was the best fit for our farm. I clearly remember Dad telling me, “You can’t even do a full day’s work yet – how can you possibly take on a project like this?”, in May 2010. It wasn’t intended negatively, Dad was just trying to be realistic. I said to him, “I know – but I can feel I’m getting better.” One rather large obstacle remained (other than family doubters) – Lely do not install robots in an area until they have an established Lely Centre, to provide the necessary level of support. Not easily deterred, I booked flights to Victoria for Dad, myself and Derek Acheson of Teknodairy (I felt he was a key candidate for the Lely Centre). Before the flight home, Dad and Derek were both hooked. Within a month Derek had successfully negotiated the commencement of the Jimboomba Lely Centre. Through my co-ordination, and a great deal of support, our first cow was milked robotically only four months after our visit to the Warren and Williams’ robotic dairies, in October 2010. In that short time we’ve seen tremendous productive efficiencies of between 15% and 20% each month, with reduced labour. My wife used to do the morning milking with me, which made for a very long day for her. One of the biggest benefits for the farm, is that Trish has now been able to take over the bookwork, and Myob from Mum and Aunty Rose.
One of my most influential mentors is without doubt my father. Although the younger brother of the partnership, he always took the leadership role with financial and management decisions – particularly with the high growth phases of the dairy through the 70’s and 80’s. He wasn’t necessarily a pioneer, but always quick to analyze and adopt new and improved systems or technology. We built one of the early Herringbone sheds over 40 years ago, and in 1991 built a 50 platform Rotary. These improvements enabled rapid expansion and efficiencies on farm at their time. We have never relied on contractors, when it comes to farm work. With all our own implements, we are able to best work in with weather patterns, through the entire hay-making process, to annual planting of ryegrass, and ongoing fertilizing and irrigation. By growing all of our animals fibre requirements we are able to control both cost and quality. Our farm has always diversified, with Uncle Ray overseeing these sidelines. With beef cattle (as many as 600 head) from the 70’s to the 90’s – hay sales (of up to 20,000 square bales a year) over the past 15 years in particular. I am heading up our current venture into tourism as Farmer Gregie (with over 500 visitors in our first month – and already booked another 15 busloads for the remainder of 2012).
I feel very passionate about the impact we can have, through a simple viewing of our Robotic Dairy, to the wider population. With a perfect location (one hour from Brisbane and the Gold Coast), I’m particularly looking to base our core business on school kids – over 1,000 schools within an easy day trip of our farm. Cows are now literally milking 24/7 – offering great flexibility in viewing hours. As the gap continues to widen – between city and country – I see this venture as something I must do. I honestly believe our impact can be targeted at public awareness – far beyond exposure to the dairy industry. It will stimulate interest at school level in food production, agriculture, and future employment possibilities in rural areas. This will inevitability stimulate conversations at home with mum and dad. For some time now I’ve said, “I don’t want sympathy from our urban friends, but we can’t even expect empathy for our efforts – when they have no knowledge or exposure to our commitment, in providing for their families.” Early feedback has been exceptionally promising. Our ventures have always been calculated and costed. They are not always successful, but we are happy to give things a good go, and cut our losses should the outcome not live up to expectation.
Dad was always an avid reader of dairy magazines and newspapers, and I continue to do so. Publications like The Australian Dairy Farmer, Holstein Journal, Dairy News, The Northern Dairy Farmer and Young Dairy Network Newsletter, give me a great insight into the current and future trends of our industry. He also networked through local branch committees like QDO and National Party (being President of both) and attending regional and state meetings as a delegate. That exposure kept him in touch with developments and changes – he was always open minded to possibilities. This also influenced my path into committees – as President of HFAA Moreton Sub Branch, Vice-President Qld HFAA, Federal Classification Committee and Federal Delegate. I’ve also enjoyed involvement in my sporting clubs – Vice President BDTA (Tennis), Match & Management Committee/Vice Captain Beaudesert Golf Club, District Delegate Woodhill Cricket Club, Manager/Coach Beaudesert Wombats U7’s Soccer Team. I have recently been invited to nominate for a board position on the Northern Dairies Management Committee, which I have submitted. I was also fortunate to attend a RYLA Camp (an initiative of the Rotary Club) in 1994, and was subsequently invited back as a leader in 1995, and RYLA Camp Administrator in 1996. This experience provided a great boost for my confidence and self-belief, both on a personal and professional level. I have also just attended a 2 day Lead-Up Seminar (1st of three parts), already utilizing some tools – understanding where others are coming from. I have at times struggled with family not understanding my position – as I’m sure they have equally struggled with me not seeing theirs.
Trish and I are also very supportive of our children’s (Jewel 14 and Jack 6) involvement in sports and physical activities. From gym, tennis, swimming, soccer, cricket, school stage productions and hip-hop dance, as well as musical instruments like flute and guitar. I feel that many of the lessons learnt from these disciplines are applicable to life. I have always been actively committed to my sporting teams, playing for the Woodhill Cricket Club for 20 consecutive years, 12 years for Lyndale Pennant Tennis Team (until they disbanded), Indoor Cricket for over 20 years (representing Beaudesert in Super-League), and more recently moved into golf (due to a couple of niggling injuries), at The Beaudesert Golf Club. Having lowered my handicap to 12, I’ve also captained the Pennant Golf Team. Aside from the physical fitness, sports are a great reality check – bringing out the best…and worst in people.
I have learnt a great deal from Dad over the years, from cow – to feed – to people management. My specialty has remained cow health/milk production and breeding programs. Since 16 years of age I’ve managed the breeding program, continuing to favour purebred Holsteins. We were actively involved in showing our cattle during my first 18 years. We had some great success, the highlights including Senior Champion and Best Udder at the 1996 Qld State Feature Show, Supreme Junior Champion 2000 and 2002 Qld State Feature Shows, Reserve Senior Champion 2000 and 2001 Brisbane RNA, All Australian Progeny 1998, 1999 and 2000. Queensland Cow of the Year 2000, 2001 and 2002. Runner-Up Australian Cow of the Year for 6 consecutive years. Perhaps a highlight for me personally, was the honour of being the youngest ever recipient, at 36 years, of the Holstein Master Breeder Award in 2006 (for points accumulated by cows bred over a 20 year period). We were also Most Successful Exhibitor (All Breeds) at our local Beaudesert Show on 7 consecutive occasions, immediately prior to our hiatus from dairying.
The transition over the past three years however, has been huge. My responsibilities were increased, particularly with finances and daily operations, as we re-entered dairying, because it was my decision (in fact mine alone) to come back. As I become increasingly aware of my true ability to view future possibilities, I have continued to struggle with the resistance offered by many (or all) family members who were simply unable to conceive my vision. As my father and uncle continue to live and work (70 hour weeks!) on farm, their drive for expansion and improvements has subsided, but their work ethic and commitment to a common cause has remained second to none. Perhaps this makes the position our farm is in today, even more impressive than I realize – as it is only for my dogged determination and belief, that progress was made. I have always done extensive research and cost/benefits before proceeding with any such project. Today I predominantly use the internet at first, following up by direct phone contact, tracking down the true facts – rather than personal opinion. Too often I’ve seen uninformed opinion become the platform for somebody’s truth, and that can result in very costly mistakes.
The major challenge facing the dairy industry is undoubtedly the structure of the supply chain. It is the one area we have the least control over as farmers – but it has the greatest impact on our bottom line. This is already placing pressure on the major milk processors, by passing on price cuts at farm gate to retain margins. I was personally disappointed with the contract offered to us by Parmalat last year. In fact, I made a counter offer – outlining our requirements at farm level…but unfortunately they declined my offer. I have personally not felt the stress of coming off contract on December 31 (although I understand some of my family have). I have every confidence that our farm is well positioned to find a home for our milk supply – and have continued to make calculated decisions based on the future as I believe exists. The best way to counter market forces is with a positive public campaign, through social media (I now regularly update my newly established ‘Scenic Rim Robotic Dairy’ facebook page) and our new tourism venture. Only through the support of widespread public pressure, and empathy, will the supermarket chains adjust their decisions and strategies. Not until they see a potential financial backlash, will they pay attention – as they are so ‘money driven’. I am currently reviewing the possibility of on farm processing at a future date, as it would perfectly compliment the tens of thousands of visitors we will likely see on an annual basis.
The only certainty about climate change, is that it will continue to happen. To what extent it will affect different regions around Australia is not an exact science. It is just as important to be proactive, making provisions for future forecasts, as it is to remain flexible, adapting to changes that may not yet be known. My preference has always been to remain proactive, avoiding future pitfalls where possible – but I understand that uncertain times (with both environments surrounding global weather and financial patterns) will demand reactive decisions, when necessary.
The biggest impact on our herd over the past 3 years has been the extended hot, wet conditions. We’ve seen some serious health issues within our milking herd, most particularly mobility with stone bruising and foot-rot, and mastitis like I have never before seen. The environmental strains we are now dealing with do not discriminate – as most farmers I’ve spoken to in South-East Qld, and Northern NSW have been pushed towards and beyond 400,000 bulk somatic cell counts. Fortunately I’ve just negotiated finance for the next major project on farm – with commencement of construction of a 256 cow Artex Free-stall Barn with Promat Gelmats set for mid-August this year (I think they may be the first in Australia). Completion is expected prior to October’s end. Only for my relentless actions, is the project going ahead this year – as I was strongly deterred by other family members, and our bank. While all other dairy farmers in the region have helplessly thrown their hands in the air, I refused to accept this debilitating health issue could not be resolved. Cow comfort and health is to me, of equal importance as the public perception of our responsible actions as producers of food. Despite its $650,000 price tag, my conservative cash-flows have suggested a 5 year ROI. Once I had done the sums, I informed my family and bank that the project needed to happen this year, as I was not prepared to subject our cows to another unprotected summer. I also let the bank know that I would source finance, whether they wanted to be a part of it or not. By approaching a finance broker (who for a big part of the process looked the likely victor), I continued to work with both parties, offering all financials requested – with absolute transparency. Our bank obviously saw the solidity of the cash-flows I presented, and perhaps a benefit in retaining our business. Whilst I am relentless in making these projects become a reality in a short period of time, it remains possible only through the support of the family unit. The resistance I encounter has definitely improved my negotiating skills, forcing me to validate any position I foresee.
The two other key areas I’ll be targeting in the near future (directly related to climate change), are power savings and water efficiency. Firstly, we will be putting enough solar panels in place to provide our daily power usage for the dairy shed and four houses on the farm. Unfortunately that meter usage was too large to qualify for the recent State rebate scheme – but my calculations still show a solid benefit displacing peak-rate power costs (at 27c/kWh and growing). The other three meters on farm qualified for the rebate, and will generate a payback of 44c/kWh. Close to $100,000 worth of solar panels will be installed in the next 12 months. Water pressures on irrigation farms in the Scenic Rim will continue to grow, as priority has swayed towards the urban population base. Although currently using conventional irrigation – I have placed a 5 year time frame on the transition to centre pivots (although my Dad has stated, “It won’t happen in my lifetime”). Dad however remains the main man when it comes to irrigation. As he nears 70, his workload is as unsustainable as it is irreplaceable. Our farm layout would enable 3 pivots, covering about 70% of the existing irrigation land. Between water efficiencies, power and labour savings – even greater profitability will be generated, moving forward.
For myself personally, possibilities seem endless. I was fortunate to be invited to speak at last years’ Northern Dairies Conference on the Gold Coast, about our robotic dairy. I like to help where possible by sharing my experiences – I have just been invited to speak at the New Generations Forum in Coffs Harbour, October 2012 (a Sub-Tropical Dairies initiative), and am being considered as a Speaker for the upcoming Dairy Australia Conference, relating to my recovery from Clinical Depression. Derek Acheson (Jimboomba Lely Centre) has also requested my services, (in a professional capacity) for the upcoming Lely Astronaut installations. Lely Australia require that a Lely Centre have at least 2 qualified technicians, so I offered to do the 10 day training with Derek in 2010, and am officially trained as a Service Level 1 Technician. As my awareness grows, of the positive impact I can have beyond our farm gate, I am equally conscious of balancing those obligations with a strong core business. Without question, the people I surround myself with will become key.
While I was asked to nominate for the Australian Farmer of the Year Awards, I feel a little inadequate. Despite the tremendous progress made on our family farm over the past few years, I personally feel like a ‘work in progress’. I have so many projects queuing up for the coming years that I’m confident the best is yet to come. Perhaps though, that future will only be possible, via the foundations laid in the past couple of years. The sentimental side of me would truly cherish an award such as this, during ‘The Year of the Farmer’. Perhaps the greatest aspect though, would be the impact I could have beyond agriculture, as the recipient of this honour. It is always easier to ‘preach to the converted’, but my message moving forward is far wider reaching. Through the soul-searching forced upon me only a couple of years ago – I feel as though I have found my purpose in life, by reconnecting our city cousins, with their rural heritage. It just happens to be that the vehicle of choice is doing what I love!

1 comment:

  1. Have you thought of getting involved with Food Connect? There are many people who want access to fresh unadulterated milk and are willing to pay a fair price for it. When we used to get the milk we had a 'share' in the herd ($10) so then we could purchase raw milk from the farmer for about $5 for two litres- certainly more than what the farmer gets from the likes of Parlamat. Just a suggestion. I know of at least three friends who would LOVE real milk.