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