The rolling hillsides around Leongatha are weirdly European. About an hour east of Melbourne, this picturesque agrarian landscape is actually the site of a radical erasure, when colonial settlers rushed to turn the scrubby bushland into something more like home.
But, along a bent little road well off the A440, the Wightmans’ farm is an oasis of Australiana. On approach the first thing you notice is the rivulets of vegetation following the creek, the stands of gum trees all packed close. It wasn’t always like this: together, the Wightmans planted 50,000 native trees. “The kids are on strike,” says farm co-owner, Suzanne.
The Wightmans’ approach is a little unusual for dairy farmers. The traditional wisdom has always been that planting trees makes for lazy cows – they prefer to stand under shelter than eat – while you’re wasting land you could grow grass on. In this Scott, Suzanne’s husband, disagrees. “It has been proven now that you can plant up to 15 per cent of your place and not lose any productivity,” he says.
If his approach to trees is a little unusual, well, it’s typical of the Wightmans’ farming practices. As one of the pioneers of organic dairy in Australia, Scott and Suzanne walk the walk. “We’ve always only eaten organic food – probably 95% of our food would be organic,” says Scott. “If we can’t grow it ourselves we source it organically.”
The pair is two of the founding members of Organic Dairy Farmers Australia, a Victorian co-operative of 16 farmers, all of whom are accredited organic producers. In short, that means no chemical fertilisers, pesticides or antibiotics are used in its farming process. Together, the co-op supplies two-thirds of the organic milk in Australia.
At this point, it’s only fair to point out that farmers in general do it tough. And that the use of any chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or antibiotics in their feed, is mostly only used out of necessity, and to keep consistent yields in what is an increasingly unforgiving industry.
It must also be said that many dairy farmers who aren’t part of the collective try to minimise their dependence on chemicals – they just haven’t been through the lengthy organic accreditation process, which takes three years. “Suzanne and I were doing it 90 per cent before we decided we could see the benefit in doing it in this cooperative,” explains Scott. “The reason we formed it was because we thought there was an economic advantage in going organic.”
The economic advantage wasn’t purely a growing market for organic products. The Wightmans believed that organic practices might improve both the health of their cows, and potentially increase yields. “It started with us looking at cow health and soil health,” says Scott, spreading freshly whipped cream on a second scone. “We found ourselves spraying weeds year after year with chemicals we were told would kill the weeds, but it didn’t work. Why? Why did the weeds come back?”
So, instead of using pesticides – or, for that matter, synthesised chemical fertiliser – the Wightmans decided to pay a lot more attention to the soil. “We apply biology, that’s our secret,” says Scott. “Soil testing is regular, all the time. Occasionally we might have to add little trace elements, a little bit of copper or a little bit of boron or something like that just to help things. Just to adjust it that little bit.”
And, instead of planting a single, hardy, fast-growing grass, the farmers sow a wide variety of flowering grasses for the cows to eat. “Our pastures are more diverse,” says Scott. “It has lots of different herbs as well. We over-sow with chicory and plantain and herbs that bring up different nutrients in the soil.”
The result, according to Scott, is a more hardy cow. When we visited, it’d been five months since the Wightmans had called a vet – an almost weekly occurrence on many other farms. “Cow health is important,” says Scott. “Prevention. That’s what we’re on about. A sick cow is another expense.”
While you’d think organic, pesticide and antibiotic-free milk would be in serious demand, in the beginning, the co-op had to sell its product without branding it as organic – alongside all the other milk. As a result, rather than sell it directly, it had to come up with a somewhat convoluted method of selling its milk.
Large dairy manufacturer, Parmalat, buys the entirety of the co-op’s skim milk, which it sells as its Paul’s Pure Organic line. With the rest of its milk fats the co-op is producing its own line of products: salted and unsalted butters, cream and a line of cheeses that includes a Mousseron made by French-born cheesemaker, Matthieu Megard, best known for his own brand, the excellent L’Artisan.
Now the co-operative is getting to the point where it’s looking for new farmers to increase its milk supply as it looks to expand its product range. “Suzanne and I mentor new people coming along,” says Scott. “Especially in the early stages, they need a lot of assistance and help with different remedies for their cattle and different ways they can help the soil to improve. I get a lot of satisfaction just from helping them.”
As the Wightmans drive the king-cab ute around the farm they spot a fast-moving wombat dart into a burrow. “Plenty of wombats!” says Scott with obvious satisfaction. “Lots of little echidnas have come back, which has been really good. The bird species that have come back here – there are so many different varieties …”
And, whether or not you can taste the difference, it’s pleasing to think about this idyllic setting while spreading butter on a bit of toast. “We think because it’s produced in the most natural way in its most natural form that it’s got a taste of its own,” says Scott.