Brombin dairy farming family part of Norco's 125th anniversary legacy

Family affair: Harry Collins and Max Cleary, Meaghan, Ruby and Luke Cleary, Michael Hillard and Sue and Leo Cleary on the Brombin dairy farm, Hastings Park.
Family affair: Harry Collins and Max Cleary, Meaghan, Ruby and Luke Cleary, Michael Hillard and Sue and Leo Cleary on the Brombin dairy farm, Hastings Park.

Norco is celebrating its 125th anniversary and in this three-part series we meet the Clearys from Brombin who are part of the Norco "family".

Leo Cleary says the $1 milk campaign that saw dairy farmers' income plummet into chaos was "an insult to the industry".

And the Brombin industry leader predicts a brighter future if - and it's a big if - the supermarket chains are forced into accepting a mandatory code similar to dairy farmers.

At a time when Norco is shining a light on the industry as part of its 125 year anniversary of operations, Mr Cleary and wife Sue appear quietly confident their strategies for a generational footprint in the industry are secure.

The Clearys purchased Hastings Park 26 years ago - July 16 - with Leo "keen for a career change and Sue telling me it was now or never".

"We were both school teachers and I was from a dairy farming family," Mr Cleary said.

"There were discussions about other kinds of farming pursuits but we opted for dairying.

"After looking at property in Victoria, Riverina and on the South Coast we arrived in Brombin and this place ticked plenty of boxes - it had a good house, a Herringbone dairy and good rainfall, with the backup of reliable irrigation when needed.

Closed herd: The Clearys have been working with a closed herd for about five or six years.

Closed herd: The Clearys have been working with a closed herd for about five or six years.

"We were on 210 acres milking 80 cows with the help of the kids - Luke, Michael and Meghan - as they were growing up."

But there was a realisation that to expand their operations, the family would need a stable pay packet coming in and Sue returned to teaching.

That move proved to be the secret to their success, according to Mr Cleary.

"We were able to grow the business because the profits from the farm could be returned to the farm and we lived off Sue's income.

"That is the blueprint; if you can bring in that extra income it is a great benefit.

"This concept is different to farm contracting where you wear out your own machinery doing work for other people before you get the chance to even work on your own place," he said.

The family soon bought a neighbouring property giving them 300 acres and are now milking around 350 cows.

An investment in a heifer-raring property at Pappinbarra further established their operations.

Change is good

Mr Cleary said the philosophy behind their planning was simple: be prepared to pay for advice and then make the most of it.

Working closely with a farm adviser, and more recently an accountant, the Clearys believe they have a specific plan ahead of them.

"Our philosophy was to farm proactively and re-actively just to deal with whatever nature dealt you.

"By being proactive you have seed and fertiliser in the shed and your machinery ready to go so when the opportunity is there you go at it," he said.

"We also have to be reactive in dealing with varying seasonal conditions as they arise."

The Clearys also decided to embrace A2 milk as a way forward and have now had a closed A2 herd for six years.

While they were forced to replace around 60 per cent of their stock, since that move the family has realised good returns on their milk and higher pricing for stock.

Mr Cleary also acknowledged Norco had played a part in the farm's success story.

He says the family has enjoyed a good working relationship with Norco field officers over the years.

Mr Cleary said Norco was also supportive during the recent drought and bushfire period by paying a drought recovery component to help farmers recover.

"I consider them [Norco] to be market leaders," Mr Cleary added.

Brombin farm: Hastings Park is located in beautiful Brombin.

Brombin farm: Hastings Park is located in beautiful Brombin.

Succession planning

The topic of succession planning is fraught with danger if family members aren't on top of discussing what the future of the farm will look like. And, importantly, who is responsible for driving that change.

The Clearys have sidestepped the issue by working on a different tack: sharing the workload and therefore the responsibilities.

The couple's son Luke is now taking on a bigger role on the farm and his wife Meaghan is also working on farm-related projects.

According to Luke, succession planning simply evolved around progressing the farm.

Another son Michael is an educational consultant and has been involved in some aspects of the planning, as has daughter Meg who lives and works on the Pappinbarra farm with husband Michael Hillard and their children.

Luke has shifted the farm to a more computer-based system courtesy of studying at Tocal Agricultural College near Paterson, where he gained a diploma in agriculture.

"I'm basically responsible for milking operations and herd management while [brother-in-law] Michael [Hillard] looks after machinery maintenance and maintenance along with our welding needs," Luke said.

"Leo looks after the fertilising, spraying, planting, allocating pastures and a lot of the tractor work.

"We all help with milking at times and everybody does help each other.

"I'd describe it as a comfortable partnership - we don't have too many barneys, if any.

"We found that if that person has responsibility for an area they look after that area and everyone works well together.

"We also have the support of two loyal, long-term employees - Peter has been with us for 12 years and Nick for seven years."

Sue takes responsibility for the business management side of the farm duties, Mr Cleary said.

Pricing "insult"

While the dairy mandatory code has helped the industry enormously, the lack of a similar compulsory code for supermarket outlets needs to be addressed.

The code means processors have to offer industry a fixed price for a set period.

Mr Cleary said Norco has come out with a price that will provide some security over pricing.

"That has given us the confidence to go ahead and make some financial decisions about the future," he said.

"I would like to see supermarkets have to follow the same path.

"The $1 milk - which is now $1.10 - is hurting the industry. That price does not reflect the investment we are making in this industry.

"That price means the consumer gets this idea that milk is less valuable than water.

"But we have many impacts on our industry. We look after the environment, care for our stock and deal with climate change.

"In the recent drought the Hastings River stopped flowing for the first time since around the 1940s.

"And then you see your product on the shelves [at that price] and it is almost a gimmick. It's not a good feeling. It's insulting.

"For us there's only one real issue: milk pricing. You can't sell a product for under the cost of producing it.

"And there is a knock-on effect if our industry is not going well. There's the local produce store, machinery maintenance outlets, the tractor and diesel mechanics ... these are all small businesses."

Long road: The entry to Hastings Park is picturesque.

Long road: The entry to Hastings Park is picturesque.

Dairy future

The challenge, according to Leo Cleary, is investment.

For anyone looking to enter the industry they will need to have secure financial backing.

When the Clearys started out they were milking 80 cows but nowadays successful farms need at least 250 cows along with a couple of hundred heifers.

You wouldn't get much change back from $4 million to start out and you'd be hoping the on-farm infrastructure doesn't need to be built or upgraded in the foreseeable future.

Throw in computer feeding and Herd ID technology and the cost of investment continues to climb.

Luke Cleary says one way of addressing those up-front costs is in share farming and vendor finance.

"Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand are very good at this share arrangement because it is a pathway into the industry.

"It is a way of building up equity which helps to, eventually, go on and buy the farm.

"Our council has shown its support for farming with the publication of a right to farm policy. This informs those moving into land zoned for farming, activities to expect on a regular basis."

He says the current COVID-19 pandemic is also helping highlight Australian-owned products and produce - and it's proving a bonus.

"Norco is very good at point of sale promotion and they continually go to market with a good story to tell.

"COVID-19 has arguably made people more aware of what is an Australian-made product; we just have to keep telling our story.

"Norco is getting some really good momentum."

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