Feature

Ethical dairy farmers

Green Lifestyle magazine

The dairy industry is one that’s wrought with many issues both ethical and environmental. John Smith and his family are seeking to provide dairy that deals as best they can with those issues.

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John Smith and his family on the dairy farm ‘Enniskillen’ in Western Victoria, Australia.

Credit: Richard Cornish

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Farmer John Smith plunges a silver garden fork into his paddock on the family dairy farm ‘Enniskillen’ in Western Victoria. He lifts a clod of earth and runs his fingers through it. Black, sweet smelling and interlaced with fat red earthworms Smith’s soil grows a diverse range of grasses and leafy greens on which his herd of Jersey milking cows graze. “If you’ve got a problem with the grass or the cattle you have to treat the cause, not the symptoms,” he says. “If you have healthy soil, you’ll have pasture full of nutrients and the cows won’t get sick.”

Smith took the hard road to this discovery. In the 1990s he succumbed to chronic fatigue syndrome. With his health impaired he made drastic changes, converting the generations-old family farm in the rich dairy country. Today he farms using a combination of organic and biodynamic methods, eschewing chemical treatments for pests in his pasture and cattle. The results can be seen in the pastures. While nearby farms were suffering from lack of rain, Smith’s pastures – a mix of traditional grasses and deep-rooted greens – were still thick and feeding the herd, lessening the need for supplementary feed.

Smith’s cows live to at least 11 years, much longer than the average Australian dairy cow, which is slaughtered at three to four years. He and his colleagues also share the concerns that many consumers have about the fate of bobby calves, with many, particularly male calves, being slaughtered shortly after birth. They are working on a project to create a market for organic veal and beef that would enable their farmers to take control of how bobby calves are handled.

Helping Smith along the way was his decision to join a cooperative of over a dozen like-minded farmers who formed Organic Dairy Farmers Australia back in 2002. They all threw in funds to create an entity to make and market quality Australian-made organic dairy foods with an aim of paying the farmers a premium so they could look after not only themselves but also the health of the farms and livestock. Today the cooperative has 16 members with another four waiting to join as their conversion to organics is completed. After a decade they are not only producing their own butter (previously they had been importing organic New Zealand butter) but are now bottling their own unhomogenised biodynamic milk.

Back at ‘Enniskillen’ John Smith takes us to a patch of land that in his father’s day was a band of sand in the middle of the farm. Today the top layer of soil is dark and chocolaty. “Dad used to pour the superphosphate (artificial fertiliser) on this and all he grew was weeds,” says Smith. He clenches the dark soil in his fist. “This is where it all comes from. Healthy pastures growing in healthy, living soil.”