Late last month a boutique dairy, hidden down the back streets of Fitzroy, changed hands. Established just five years ago, Saint David Dairy was one of the pioneers of the new wave of processors making minimal-intervention, great tasting milk. It sold for a reported $15.25 million proving that in the troubled dairy industry smaller can be better.
Since Saint David Dairy was founded, artisan operations have been popping up around the state. The availability of affordable microprocessing equipment, combined with an increased demand for paddock-to-bottle milk and small-batch butter, has seen the boutique dairy movement prosper.
"Since the dairy crisis  people are more aware of where their milk comes from," says Sallie Jones, of Gippsland Jersey.
"People want quality," says Rachel Needoba of Butterfly Factory, a tiny operation producing a few thousand litres each week in Warragul. "People know that their milk is being over-processed and want to have something more natural and less interfered with."
There are some truly exciting things happening in our artisan dairy industry, which is producing more beautiful milk and butter in Victoria than ever before. Indeed, some of these products below are the best in Australia.
Sallie Jones and her business partner Steve Ronalds launched Gippsland Jersey just two years ago at the height of the dairy crisis. Back then Jones was reeling after the death of her father.
Pay farmers properly for milk. Respect them. Sallie Jones
He was a dairy farmer near Lakes Entrance in Victoria's east who had committed suicide. "Sadly, it is not uncommon with dairy farmers," she says. "I was so full of loss and anger.
"It came to me one day at a farmers' market. 'Pay farmers properly for milk. Respect them. Respect the community'."
At that time, dairy farmers were being paid less than the cost of production for their milk, a situation that continues today in drought-stricken areas, where farmers, although they are now being paid more, are spending huge amounts of money on hay to feed their herds.
"If we don't pay dairy farmers properly there are other people in the world who will," says Jones. "I was in China last month and fresh Australian milk was fetching the equivalent of $13 a litre!"
She and Ronalds pay their farmers above the farm gate price paid by the multinational processors.
"Real milk prices haven't changed in 30 years," says Jones. "Dairy farmers are being treated like peasants."
The benefit to the consumer is that Gippsland Jersey is a great-tasting milk sourced from jersey herds, known for their rich, creamy milk. "Some of the cream is removed," says Jones. "But we don't put our milk through reverse osmosis filtration."
This is a rarely talked about but widely practised industrial process in which protein, sugar and other components are isolated from the milk using high-pressure filters. The different elements are then reassembled to make the milk sold by supermarkets. By not doing this, small-scale processors like Gippsland Jersey are able to make milk that has a fresher flavour and more delicate mouthfeel.
Sadly, Jones and Donalds just received notice from their processor that the relationship was over. Gippsland Jersey milk was given just 30 days' notice to find somewhere else to pasteurise and bottle their milk and are currently weighing up several possibilities. "We're here for the long haul," says Jones. "This is a good fight and its needs fighting."
In the former pool house of a family home in Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula, Monica Cavarsan is making some of the best butter in Australia.
Cavarsan is the daughter of a dairy farmer. "I remember when we were on the farm and mum would take the cream from the top of milk and whip it into butter," she says. "I guess some things never leave you."
She left the farm to work in marketing. She was unhappy, though, and was retrenched mid-career. With her payout, she turned a spare room by the pool into a tiny Dairy Food Safety Australia-approved butter factory.
Here she transforms cream into truly outstanding cultured butter. For her own brand, Lard Ass, she uses fresh cream that she picks up in two-litre containers from Inglenook Dairy, a small, family-owned dairy near Ballarat.
This she pours into a fermenter, inoculating the cream with lactic acid bacteria and other cultures, transforming it into a delicious mushroomy creme fraiche. This she then slowly churns into a butter in a machine no bigger than a single-drawer filing cabinet. Hand-formed and hand-wrapped, she sells it under the eyecatching Lard Ass label. ("I wanted to call it Lard Arse but they wouldn't let me register the name.")
Using the same process and machinery, she also makes butter for Schulz Organic Dairy, a trial run for larger production.
While Lard Ass butter is very good, the butter she makes with the cream from Schulz Organic Dairy is exceptional. It has a delicate caramel note, an effect of the pasteurisation, and melts on the tongue, smooth and cool like great chocolate, finishing with a clean lactic tang.
Schulz Organic Dairy
Last week Simon Schulz was welcomed into the prestigious fellowship of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Legends. His family has been making waves in the dairy scene since 1972, when his grandfather, Hermann Schulz, launched an organic camembert. "Back then not many people knew what a camembert was, let alone what organic meant," says Schulz.
With his grandfather as a mentor, young Schulz started a small dairy in 2006 processing milk from his father's organic herd. He now has a staff of 35 and has developed a range of cream, yoghurt and fresh cheeses. "I guess it was in the blood," he says. Aware of the backlash against plastic packaging earlier this year, he began selling his milk in glass bottles, making him the first Victorian dairy in recent years to do so. Schulz, like many small dairy processors, does not homogenise his milk, leaving a creamy layer sitting on top. The quality of the milk is excellent, always smooth and creamy, with a slight, delicate caramel note.
How Now Dairy
It's the humane treatment of animals that spurred city girl Cathy Palmer to bottle her own milk. She was a talent scout for a music publishing company with a good ear for popular music. When she hooked up with a man from a dairy background she spent time on his family farm at Congupna, near Shepparton.
The sound of cows bellowing into the night for their calves turned her life around.
"What the dairy industry does not like to talk about is that for a cow to lactate she needs to calve," says the gregarious dairywoman. "Those calves are taken from their mother within a few days after birth. Male calves are sent to market, often for slaughter. It was the inhumanity of the situation that led me to How Now," she says. Palmer, unlike every other commercial dairy farmer in the nation, keeps her calves with their mothers. The reduction in output from the herd is compensated by the peace of mind it gives her and her clients.
Little Yarra Dairy
This is perhaps the smallest and most boutique dairy in the nation, supplying biodynamic milk, yoghurt and cream to just 180 families in the small towns around the Yarra Valley. Dairyman Tyrone Brown talks quietly to his "girls" as they enter the sheds to be milked. While the average dairy herd in the nation is 261, he has just 12 cows.
He practises what some call "Slow Milk", baulking at the modern trend of massive herds under pressure to produce more and more milk. His cows yield about 10 litres a day based on once-a-day milking, about half the dairy industry average.
While it is hard to get hold of his fresh milk, you can taste the quality of the product in the excellent soft cheeses made by Jack Holman at Stone and Crow.
If you dine at France-Soir in South Yarra, have a coffee at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley or O.My in Beaconsfield, you will probably have tried what some say is the best milk in the nation, made from a single herd of rare Fleckvieh cattle by Rachel Needoba.
The wife of award-winning winemaker William Downie, she says, "Having watched and worked with wine, you understand that everything you do, every decision you make, determines the quality of the end product."
Needoba is careful not to agitate the milk. This, she explains, disrupts the fat globules. Once they are broken apart, the milk begins to deteriorate as the naturally occurring enzyme lipase begins to break down the fat. She pours a glass of the milk from a batch just pasteurised.
The quality of her Butterfly Factory milk is truly outstanding. It has a soft and delicate mouthfeel, with beautiful subtle earthy aromas and a clean, almost savoury, finish. As the son of a dairy farmer I can honestly say it is the closest to the taste and aroma of raw milk I have ever tasted.
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Demeter Bio-Dynamic Milk
Made from the yields of two biodynamic herds in Northern Victoria, this is an excellent milk with a rich layer of cream on top and great fresh flavour. Available across Victoria in good food stores and organic grocers.
From the people who brought you Shaw River Buffalo Cheese comes this rich, sweet-tasting and rich buffalo milk from their herd grazing on pastures at Yambuk on the Western Victorian coast near Port Fairy. Try local farmers markets or the farm gate (opening this summer).
Schulz Organic Dairy
Organic unhomogenised milk sold in glass bottles (as well as regular plastic containers) alongside yoghurt, cream, butter and fresh cheese. Available across Victoria in good food stores and farmers' markets.
The Camel Milk Co.
Megan and Chris Williams met in the NT outback, returned to Kyabram, the milking country where Megan grew up and started milking camels. The milk is rich, sweet, very soft on the palate and easy on the tummy. Available in shop online or visit the website for the store locator.
How Now Dairy
From cows with calves still at their feet, How Now is recognised for its high ethical standards and quality milk. Widely available in selected Melbourne grocers.
Made from jersey cows grazing in Gippsland, it's rich tasting with a clean finish. A recent deal with Woolworths sees it in 13 of the big supermarket's stores in Melbourne along with small retailers and in farmers' markets in West Gippsland.
Lard Ass Cultured Butter
Small-batch cultured butter sold in a variety of flavours across Geelong and around the Bellarine Peninsula.
Rachel and Troy Peterken wanted to add value to the milk coming from the family farm so invested a motza into a state-of-the-art processing and bottling plant near Ballarat. Good tasting milk used by cafes across Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat. Home delivery offered in Geelong and sold in food stores across the state.
Bass River Dairies
A fourth-generation dairy family milking a holstein herd and processing the milk on farm. The farm is at Bass on the Bass River in Gippsland and only sells 100 kilometres around the farm, which includes Phillip Island, the Mornington Peninsula, and South Gippsland.