Milk of kindness


Joe Snr, Antonia and Joe Jnr, Elgaar Farm
Joe Snr, Antonia and Joe Jnr, delighted to be making cheese again at Elgaar Farm, Deloraine  Photo: Hilary Burden

Along the bush-lined gravel drive up to Elgaar Farm pretty calves lead stress-free lives, lying with their mums under tall gum trees. The landscape is shaped to mimic the cow’s natural environment on the edges of forests. While a bucolic pastoral scene, it’s hard to believe the cows’ owners have been living on a knife-edge for two years.

The Gretschmanns, parents Joe and Antonia, and their family (5 sons, daughter and grandchildren), had been producing organic milk, cream, and cheese on the Moltema farm near Deloraine for over 20 years. Their cheese making, using traditions dating back over 600 years to Joe’s Bavarian ancestors, had earned international accolades. And, they were one of Australia’s leading organic, family-run dairy farms, renowned for milk in glass bottles delivered in old-fashioned wooden crates.

Elgaar attracted the kind of customer who not only fell in love with the quality of its cheese and the cream on their milk, but the way it was made – ethically, humanely and with passion. Eighty per cent of their products had been trucked to the mainland, selling through 140 shops, with no food safety incidents.

The Gretschmann family gathers itself to tell how, on July 8 2014, Elgaar Farm’s license to manufacture and process dairy products was suspended indefinitely by the Tasmanian Dairy Industry Authority. And how they were only able, finally, to start back on August 23rd this year.  Throughout the suspension period Elgaar continued to hold a separate dairy farmer’s license enabling them to sell milk to other suppliers. But, with a small herd of 100 cows, manufacturers were asking them to commit to a 12-month contract. Elgaar chose not to bind themselves to such contracts, always believing they’d have their license back within a matter of weeks.

The impact of the Authority’s action is not something on which the family wishes to dwell. Instead, they’d rather focus on the good news, making cheese again, returning to farmers’ markets next week, to see old friends and new, and receiving orders for Christmas hampers.
The road back to recovery has been long and painful. They lost their income. Months of unpaid work were spent trying to satisfy the requirements of the TDIA. A dozen employees were let go. Two sons had to leave the family farm. Milk they believed they could no longer sell was dumped on the fields as fertiliser. After satisfying every rule and regulation, they start back with a $400,000 debt.

Minister for Primary Industries and Water Jeremy Rockcliff says the government and the TDIA “work constructively with all dairy processors to ensure they meet the mandatory dairy food safety standards, whether they are large, small or considered ethical or artisanal producers”. But the family is baffled, saying what they have experienced is the precise opposite.

I’m greeted on farm by a child’s warm welcome. “Hello, my name is Andrew.” The Gretschmann’s 5 year-old grandson plays in a farm trailer turned child’s sand pit. Antonia walks up to the cheesery with a pot of freshly brewed coffee. And Gareth, their only daughter Tonia’s partner, is renovating the granary where they hope to soon launch their new organic grain business, milling organic wheat, spelt, barley, rye, linseed, and oats. Gareth says he had to do something with the down time. “Two years is a long time to think about stuff.”

It’s the day before they start making cheese “officially” again. Joe Senior, an imposing and passionate man, whose voice reverberates through the cheesery, greets me with a fat lever arch folder.

“We stopped for two whole years,” he says, “and this is the reason – our food safety program. It used to be 60 pages – now it’s more than 600. We kept our own records but because it didn’t fit into their modern system they chose not to believe us anymore.”

Later he says the industry now is “Kill everything – on the wall, on the floor, on the equipment, even if it’s beneficial. Just kill everything. We work in a natural environment where we encourage beneficial bacteria and resilience of systems to stop listeria growing in the products. While the science knows this exists, it’s incredibly difficult to get this across.”

You don’t interview Joe without interviewing the family; everyone has roles that overlap.

“All over Europe it’s accepted that small factories can do that because it works in small factories,” says Joe Jnr. “In Australia – no. The little ones have to be just like the big ones.”

Joe and Antonia explain how they were in Europe when the cheese factory was closed down. “We came back to a shut factory,” says Joe. “I thought it would take a week. We always thought we’d have the license soon, next week, next month – another four weeks… There was nothing wrong,” says Joe. “It’s just unbelievable what we had to go through – the process, the control. Here we have flow charts…”

He finds pages in the folder. “Every significant step you have to put down, even though I could reel them off… We spent days and days, weeks, trying to mould what we do, this artistic thing, into those pages there. You think this is crazy but you have to do it. If I really have to say it in one word – it’s gone from a passion into a technocratic description.”

You can see why they try hard not to dwell. And why the time they spent with the TDIA was difficult for them. That file represents the recipe for what they have always done by nature. It must have been like asking Picasso to paint by numbers.

Antonia is Joe’s peace and his strength. “This is all designed for the big cheese factories,” says Antonia, who first met Joe in Bavaria when she was an Ag Science student. “There should be a different way for smaller, family-run factories,” she says. “The rules are written for very large operations that haven’t got that single control over the process. We have unique farming and production practices. And we know our cows. You don’t if you have 500 milk suppliers.”

“We don’t make 1000 kg of cheese a day or 10,000 kgs or 100,000 kgs of cheese a day,” explains Joe. “If we make cheese we make 160 kgs a day, from our own farm from our own cows. And we produce for the people. We don’t produce for the legislation or anyone in authority. We have it under control but now we have to prove it. We have to measure it. We have to test it. We have to write it down.”

At the entrance to the cheese-making room now there’s a visitors’ book. Antonia asks me to sign in, write the purpose of my visit, and the time I arrived. “If you don’t do it we are in breach,” she says, calmly.

Joe and Antonia, Gareth and Tonia, and Joe Jnr stand in a semi-circle. Whitewashed walls have been painted over with an impermeable paint, according to required specifications, despite the fact that traditional cheese factories in Europe use whitewash. And the new high spec $100,000 pasteurizer, funded by crowd funding and installed over 12 weeks by Joe Jnr, glows in one corner.

The Elgaar farm story went viral when the option of selling the farm had become a very real one. Money had run out. Without a license they couldn’t get a bank loan. Along with no income, they were considered not to have a viable business.

When they were told a valuer was coming to value the farm they sought help, first from friends and then openly, through crowdfunding on their own website. Tonia says she had to learn some stuff pretty quickly: how to accept payments, set up a shop. They called it their “Comeback Campaign”.

“People were ringing up every day asking when we were coming back,” explains Gareth. “We wondered would any of those people actually put money up to help us?” In four days they raised $100,000, the majority from Tasmanians, enough to pay for the pasteurizer. Within a month the total had reached $230,000. Those who helped the family get through this period are all named and acknowledged on the Elgaar Farm website. “We were stunned. It’s just hard to describe,” says Gareth.

Joe says “People said to us, ‘I’ve got some money in the bank. You have it. I want to see you making cheese again. Build that dam pasteuriser. Get back to the market!’ That’s how we survived I think – it’s the people out there. You still can’t find the words for how it touches you.”

You can understand why the family has decided to get back to business by getting back to farmers’ markets first. It means they can say thank you in person to everyone who’s helped. “We’ve got to pay these people back,” says Gareth. “It’s not just about us and keeping the business alive but unfortunately there is no alternative if you want organic milk that’s not in plastic in Tassie there is just nothing else.”

Joe Jnr explains how they’ll re-build slowly. “Milk volume isn’t that high. We’ve got to start slowly financially as well. We’ve got to ease into it otherwise it’ll be gone again…”

Is there any way the family thinks the Elgaar brand has been damaged through all this? Gareth believes the opposite, that people who are already committed to buying the product are even more committed now. “We could thank the authorities for that,” he says and smiles.

What’s it like to getting back making cheese again?

“Delightful…” says Joe Snr.

“It beats sitting in the office writing things,” says Tonia.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Joe Jnr. “It was like having your hands tied for two years: you can’t touch this, can’t make that. Can’t, can’t… Suddenly we can actually do it!”

Joe’s passion is back. “We made the cheese as we did. We take our hands and get in the cheese as we did. We can taste it, smell, it. We just have to write it all down. Now they can go and look and if they don’t believe me – it’s there.”

Antonia says it’s been a tough, wet winter for the cows but they’ve come through and now it’s warm they’re happy. Joe will tell you when they’ve had enough they turn their backs to the weather. “When it gets really wet cows just sit it out.”

Elgaar Farm returns to Harvest Launceston on Saturday 24th September and Hobart’s Farmgate Market on Sunday 25th September

First published in TasWeekend, September 17-18, 2016

Count blessings, not years

Shane Gould on her early morning ocean swim at Bicheno. Photo: Hilary Burden

I’ve watched two friends turn fifty this week. Twenty, 30, 40, 60… new decades have a way of making us reflect more on where we’ve come to and what we want next. Their birthdays have brought to mind that great Joan Rivers’ saying, “Looking 50 is great if you’re 60.”

There’s something about turning half a century old, however, that makes people stop and think, reflect and plan, sometimes panic. It shares the same fears and expectations of seeing in the New Year – but for your life. You need to be with the right people, in the right place, have the right face on to front the second half.

The recent National Aged Care Summit in Hobart had us thinking about getting older. We heard about the “tsunami of old people” on our doorstep, “the baby boomer bulge”, and how Tasmania is the oldest state in the country (with 16% of our population aged 65+), and ageing faster than any other state. We learnt how demographers divide our ageing population into ‘young olds’ (60-74), ‘mid olds’ (75–84) and ‘older olds’ (85+). How, based on the 2011 Census, 1 in 6 Tasmanians were aged 65+. In 2020, they project that will be 1 in 5, and 1 in 4 by 2030.

In focusing too much on the measuring of age, somehow we wind up thinking an ageing population is a bad thing. Maybe when you count things they get worse. Can we learn to use different words, like ‘the elders’? Or, ‘people older than us’? Or, people in the second half of their life, however long that turns out to be?

Then we might stop thinking of old age as if it were a disease, and more of the mystery that it is. Elders and people older than us are individuals, rather than an expanding, homogenous mass. They know more, have lived longer, weighed it all up and spat it back out. They’re survivors, not on the downhill run of a demographer’s measure.

We are counting too much. Thanks to a friend (who’s about to turn 60) I’ve recently discovered there’s a word for it: “performativity”. She gave me a paper by sociology professor Stephen Ball who defines performativity in an education policy context. He says, “It requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations. To set aside personal beliefs and commitments and live an existence of calculation.”

In his 2001 book The Tyranny of Numbers David Boyle wrote, “We take our collective pulse 24 hours a day with the use of statistics. We understand life that way, though somehow the more figures we use, the more the great truths seem to slip through our fingers. Despite all that numerical control, we feel as ignorant of the answers to the big questions as ever.”

When I think about the elders I know the arc of their lives is so much more fascinating than the short-lived burning desires of youth. Many are spending the second half of their life recovering from being a young person. Many are off the track we think we all need to be on and doing the things they want to do – an attitude often mistakenly thought of as ‘grumpy’. More often than not it’s just contrary to what is expected of them and they’re finally free of paying up and shutting up.

My 50-year-old friend decided to take her motorbike test and buy a second hand bike. She’s riding it now in leathers and beeps every time she roars past the house. At 69, another friend has signed up to study an online course in geology. Another, at 59, starts each morning with an ocean swim. Their age is not the important thing. They’re living a life well lived.

My friend who turns 50 today said how hard it was to hear people complaining about getting older when others haven’t had the chance. Tonight, as she gathers to sing, dance and count her fifty blessings with her loved ones and closest friends, she’ll miss the friend who didn’t make it. She’ll think of others turning 50 who’ve dealt with so much more grief and heartache. Which is why she’s seeing her 50th as a once in a lifetime occasion.

I asked for her thoughts on turning 50. “Life goes fast and can change in a instant,” she wrote, “and so 50 seems as good a time as any to take stock, say thank you, tell the people you love how important they are to you and challenge yourself to live the next stage of your life as best you can.”

Next week she’s jetting off to New York for the first time. Fifty’s a number she’s chosen to embrace. Meanwhile, I’ve been raiding the book of milestone birthday quotations, and chosen this by Albert Einstein.

“People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live…[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”

Happy 50th Birthdays to Roisin: thank you for your magic and words, and to Bron: thank you for your friendship and all the loving things you do.

Coffee Club ocean swim group, Bicheno
Coffee Club ocean swim group, Waub’s Bay, Bicheno. Photo: Hilary Burden


In a league of their own

Watching the Hampson-Hardeman Cup, the AFL Women’s All Star Match, last weekend you couldn’t help but notice how good it was and how well it flowed. Women have played football for 100 years – we just haven’t seen them.

We’re watching something new. And it’s proved a TV ratings success, with over a million viewers nationally tuning in to watch the Saturday game, and a record for any Saturday night AFL match.

Culturally, Australians are not accustomed to seeing a team of strong women play high profile sport. We’re used to tall and agile women make a name for themselves in netball or basketball. Swimmers and tennis players make front-page news, often more for their looks than their skill.

Sure, there’s women’s cricket and soccer teams that rate a mention now and then.

But AFL is different. It’s Australia’s game and a contact sport, reflecting a unique culture. It’s fast, tough, and calls for skill at kicking, hand-balling, marking and tackling. Until now, women mostly made news for being glamorous wives – ornaments not equals – certainly not for kicking a goal from 55m, as the Demons’ Tayla Harris did.


The genie is out. Women who love to play footie will no longer struggle to be noticed or have a voice. They have a league of their own. The inaugural national women’s league kicks off in February 2017.

Last weekend, the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons ran onto the Whitten Oval wearing smiles. There were blondes and brunettes, ponytails and headbands. No one even cared if they were wearing makeup or not because their passion and talent was what mattered. What they came to do was what counted. No mention of hip measurement or cleavage. This is what happens when women are treated equally and respectfully.

One reporter observed it was all commentators could do to keep up with the play, at first stumbling over terms like “ruckwoman”. Soon, it will be the norm.

Our Watch (part of the government plan to reduce violence against women and children) partnered with the AFL for last Saturday’s game. They’re onto the value of this, while sponsors are also beginning to sit up and take interest.

Our Watch CEO Mary Barry said, “Sport has an influence way beyond the field it is played on. Providing opportunities and pathways for young women and girls to play AFL at an elite level normalizes the role that women play in our sport – on the field, in the clubroom and in the boardroom. Gender equality is at the core of healthy, respectful relationships.”

While men have often hidden their emotions behind the game, there’s something different happening with women players. We know already Moana Hope, who scored 6 goals for the Bulldogs and was best on ground on Saturday, is from the school of hard knocks. And Katie Brennan is a former bulimia sufferer who now sees beauty in and harnesses power from physical strength.

“Strong is the new pretty”, said Brennan memorably.

The new code marks a continuation of a necessary evolution for the AFL. Racism and sexism have long found common ground, on and off the field. Just as footy fans are being challenged to focus on the player not colour, this goes for women too, being recognised for who they are and what they can do, not what they look like.

Bulldogs vice-president Dr Susan Alberti is at the heart of the revolution. She was one of many signatories to a letter of complaint to Channel 9 about their treatment on The Footy Show. Sam Newman called the signatories liars and hypocrites and Alberti fought back, suing for defamation.

An apology from Channel Nine was read out in court, saying the network had not intended to impute Dr Alberti was a liar. She received $220,000 compensation, ironically helping to fund the women’s league.

Alberti told Australian Story, “I believe the culture of any organization, particularly AFL, it comes from the top. And I was making noises behind the scenes, albeit ruffling a few feathers, saying this is crazy, why haven’t we got women playing AFL football? It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.”

Racing Victoria should consider itself on notice, using topless models alongside horses and men in suits to advertise the upcoming Spring Racing Carnival. It was only less than a year ago Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

The AFL said that amongst the final total of 6,365 at Whitten Oval were “little girls sporting the unusual combination of over-sized footy jumpers and fairy dresses”. Now that’s a look. And, in a second-quarter televised interview, Bulldogs President Peter Gordon proudly said, “I see a future in which girls know that they can not only watch the game and love the game but play it at the highest level. It’s fantastic to know that half the population, the female population, get to play this game, get to start up a league of their own.”

The Hampson-Hardeman Cup is named in recognition of female football pioneers Barb Hampson and Lisa Hardeman who developed the first women’s championships in 1998.


First published in TasWeekend, September 10, 2016