Last month Maleny Dairies were pounded by state media attention with their voluntary product recall. Dale Jacobsen visited the farm and discovered that not only is the problem now rectified, it is business as usual for the Hopper family – and that they produce much more for the community than milk.
by Dale Jacobsen
It is unlikely that Gordon and Kath Hopper would have envisaged a boutique milk factory, producing 75,000 litres of milk a week, occupying the dairy farm they purchased in 1948. Back then, 300 small dairy farms spread across the hills, forming the backbone of the community.
By 2000, the number had reduced to 33 larger farms that still produced about the same amount of milk. Today, there are only a dozen, and eight of them send their milk exclusively to Maleny Dairies who proudly offer an average gate price of 60.5c per litre, compared with around 47c paid by the big corporations.
I spoke with Maleny Dairies’ owner, Ross Hopper, in an idyllic setting, drinking a cup of good coffee at a picnic table overlooking his brother’s dairy farm. He grinned, and said: “it’s a Maleny thing”. This family-run business represents everything visitors and locals think of as typifying Maleny – green hills dotted with Guernsey cows, a relaxed atmosphere that welcomes visitors – but it is much more than that.
With deregulation of the Australian dairy industry in 2000, the Hopper family were faced with the same situation as dairy farmers across the nation: get out of the industry, or use their initiative to survive and grow. The Hopper farm is now into its third generation and Gordon’s grandchildren, in particular, did not want to walk away from their heritage.
Keith and his wife, Sonya, took over running the farm with its 130 head of Guernsey girls from Keith’s parents, Harold and Dorothy, in 2000; Ross and his wife Sally built and now operate Maleny Dairies factory, and sister Kay Hollyoak took on managing tourism, marketing and the kiosk.
Still very much a family owned and run business, Keith and Sonya’s daughter, Meghan, works with the tourism and sales side of things, and Sonya’s brother, Peter Falcongreen, is the factory’s General Manager. Milk pickup, processing and distribution is all carried out by the team.
Despite living in Maleny for 20 years and being a loyal drinker of Maleny milk, I had never visited Maleny Dairies. The place, and the staff, are a wonderful mix of the old traditional and up-to-the-minute technology. Two years ago, Ross updated equipment, particularly the cold room, and increased the capacity of the pasteuriser from 1,800 litres per hour to 9,000 litres per hour.
“Interest is growing at a great rate,” said Ross. “We are ready to process as much milk as we can sell into the future. We are currently negotiating to supply as far afield as Hervey Bay.”
I couldn’t leave without a close encounter with the stars of the Maleny Dairies tours: the calves, goats and lambs. Beside an old shed, they crowded Sally, jostling for a drink from the oversized bottles; three toddlers raced up to the fence, dragging their mother, excitedly exclaiming: “cows! cows!”.
The tours are a brilliant concept that introduces real-life farming to visitors of all ages. Ross smiled at the reaction of the three children. “They get to experience a legit farm environment, not a fake one.”
With 20,000 visitors a year, Maleny Dairies is a major tourist attraction on the range. Busloads come from far and wide, including regular visits from retirement villages and schools in Toowoomba. “Schools from further out west descend on the coast for a week’s holiday. A tour of Maleny Dairies is always on the agenda.”
It has become something of a yearly ritual for many of Maleny’s grandparents to bring their grandkids to the place where “the milk is so fresh, you can pat the cow”. Car clubs often include Maleny Dairies in their runs, with morning smoko stop at the kiosk followed by a tour.
Adjoining the picnic area at the kiosk, three cows have been brought in to the Springer paddock. They are a couple of weeks out from giving birth, and with good timing, it might happen before the eyes of lucky visitors.
Maleny Dairies factory is a favourite place for high school students to undertake work experience, and Keith and Sonya’s farm is well known in veterinary circles as a great place for student vets to get hands-on experience.
The high quality Maleny Dairies’ products, particularly yoghurts, win many awards at the Brisbane Exhibition and Royal Easter Show in Sydney. It is this consistency and quality that keeps me, and many others, loyal to Maleny Dairies. Ross is particularly proud of their gold-top Guernsey milk, high in A2 protein. “It is as close to raw milk as is legally possible to sell,” explains Ross.
Colin James uses Maleny milk in his prize-winning ice creams and another couple of Maleny farms supply Maleny Cheese on the outskirts of the town. It will be a great day when all milk from local farms is processed into locally-made products here on the Blackall Range.