Downturn at the Dairy  by Margaret Henderson


 2-2 Timber gettes in the Richmond District c.1900.

Part 1: The Pioneers

The first dairy was set up in New South Wales as early as 1805 and by 1820 Sydney was supplied locally with all its milk, cheese and butter. At this time there was no white settlement on the North Coast of New South Wales.

In the 1840s when squatters moved into the Richmond River District they grazed sheep and, later, cattle. The cattle were mainly for beef production and when prices fell the animals were slaughtered and boiled down for their fat. This was called tallow and was used for making soap, candles, and other such products.

Some squatters kept a few milch (milk), or house, cows. These were usually quietened from the main herd and were used to supply the family with milk, butter and perhaps cheese.

The products, and the quality of the products, were largely dependent on the skill of the people producing them. Usually these were the women in the family.

Land Boom

In the early 1860s the Robertson Land Act was passed in New South Wales allowing small areas of land to be taken up by selectors or farmers under what was called “conditional purchase”. On the North Coast farmers initially concentrated mainly on growing maize (corn) or sugar cane.

Some were interested in setting up a dairy as part of their farm but there was only a limited local market, and transport was difficult. It was important to get a quick return, land had to be cleared, and dairying was too slow and time-consuming.

The Big Scrub country on the North Coast was seen as an ideal area for agriculture. It was fertile and it appeared that it could grow anything. At that time, however, most of it was thickly covered in timber heavily laden with vines. It was almost impenetrable.

As part of his “conditional purchase” the selector had to clear several acres of land each year. This was very hard work but had to be done otherwise the land would have been forfeited. In addition, the selector had to build a house.

First Dairy

James Reeves is credited with setting up the first real dairy in the District around 1870. This was at Fairy Hill, a property near Kyogle. Everything had to be done by hand. The cows were milked by hand and the milk placed in flat dishes to set.

When milk is left in this fashion cream in the milk rises to the top and can be skimmed off. This cream can then be beaten or agitated until it too separates into butter and a liquid called buttermilk.

By the 1880s there were farms established all over the Richmond River District and most of the good land, especially near the River, had been taken up. Settlers were also pushing into the Brunswick and Tweed Valleys.

Early Problems

There were many problems in setting up a dairy farm, however. There was no electricity, no refrigeration, and no pasteurisation. Everything had to be done by hand. The milking and the churning were especially hard and tiring work. It was difficult to keep the milk or cream cool so that it would not sour. In summer it was harder to make butter as the cream became very oily and would not “turn” into butter. Getting fresh cool water, which was required to wash the butter, was often a problem.

Because of this some farmers made cheese from the milk in summer rather than separating the cream and making it into butter. This, however, required special skills and experiments were expensive for the average farmer.

And there were other problems! The roads were often only tracks and getting products to the market was therefore difficult. The River was the main transport route and the lifeblood of the District. It was a long trip to the seaport at Ballina, however, to the waiting cargo ships.

go up river as far as Coraki, or even Lismore. However, to do this they had to be smaller than the usual ocean-going ships and they had to have a shallow draft. The bigger ships did not have enough room to manoeuvre without going aground. Some could be pulled up the river by tugs, or by their own long-boats, but this was a very slow process. It was not until the use of steam to power larger ships that real progress came in this regard.

The farmers closer to Byron Bay had the choice of taking their produce to this port. Some preferred Byron Bay to Ballina as it was a more reliable destination, especially later after a jetty was built. The Ballina Bar was often too dangerous for ships to enter or leave the port, and produce could be ruined just waiting for the conditions to change.

The early ships had no refrigeration so butter had to be heavily salted to preserve it and so stop it from becoming rancid. The quality of the product was therefore not always very good. However, consumers of those days were not used to very high quality, unlike consumers of today.

Part 2: Dairying Takes Off

In the 1880s there was an upsurge in the dairying industry in the Richmond River District. This was caused by several factors.

1. Farmers

There was an influx of experienced dairy farmers from the south, especially during the late 1870s. The dairying industry had been established on the South Coast of New South Wales for some time but farmers were dissatisfied, partly because many did not own their properties and land was expensive. Landowners were asking higher rents or sometimes a share of the farmer’s income. Many of these farms had been set up originally on the English model of paternalism, with tenant farmers. These farmers saw the opening up of productive land on the North Coast as independence as well as profit.

2. Technology

There were several technological improvements.

i. Refrigeration
In 1873 Thomas Mort developed the first commercial refrigeration plant in Sydney. This was essential to any large-scale development of the dairying industry. The main butter market was overseas and, prior to this, it was impossible to keep butter at a stable temperature for a long period. Refrigerated holding areas, and ships equipped with refrigeration solved the problem.

ii. Separators
In 1882 two Danish cream separators arrived in New South Wales. Denmark was a dairying nation and this invention meant that milk no longer had to sit waiting for the cream to rise to the top so that it could be skimmed off. The machine saved a great amount of time and the cream was of a much better quality. The separators were expensive, however, and the ordinary farmer could not afford them. [

At this time many people were sceptical about the functioning of separators. It had been a long held belief that there was some magic involved in the milk and cream separating and it was not believed that a machine could undertake this job!]

In 1883 the Fresh Food and Ice Co. at Kiama introduced a cream separator into its factory. This was a private company and had been set up to purchase milk from farmers and produce dairy products, which was an improvement on the previous cottage industry where the farmer and his family produced the products.

By 1886 there were reported to be 45 Swedish Alpha Laval and several Danish separators in New South Wales. One of these was on the North Coast, at the Bexhill property of William Walmsley. Mr Walmsley held a Field Day and many farmers attended. They were impressed with the capabilities of the new machine.

The separators were very costly, however, and far beyond the means of most farmers. Because of this the more progressive farmers decided to form a cooperative.

3. Cooperatives

The third factor which changed the North Coast Dairying Industry in the 1880s began in 1884 when the Pioneer Butter Factory opened at Kiama, on the South Coast of New South Wales. This Factory was owned by the local dairy farmers on a cooperative basis. It competed with the already established Fresh Food and Ice Company, a private company, and was the beginning of the cooperative movement in the dairying industry of New South Wales.

On 18 June 1887 a meeting was held at Wollongbar on the North Coast. The aim of this meeting was to form a cooperative similar to the ones on the South Coast. During the meeting John Seccombe, one of the leading farmers in the District, stated that, if a factory was established it should have refrigeration as well as ice-making capabilities. On 28 August 1889 the first cooperative was established, on John Seccombe’s land at Spring Hill, Wollongbar. Following quickly were the Unara Cooperative at Bexhill in October 1889, and the Rous Cooperative in December 1889.

[It is interesting to note that ice production was a by-product of the dairying industry on the North Coast. There were no ice-making factories already established so these butter factories had to ice in order to preserve their products. Surplus ice was sold to households for use in ice chests. This was a great step forward in keeping household food in a hot climate.]

In addition to the butter factories by 1893 there were many separating stations. These stations were situated throughout the district usually at villages so that farmers did not have so far to travel. After separation the cream was then taken in bulk to the nearest butter factory. Those farmers who were not in a cooperative had their cream taken to the N.S.W. Creamery Butter Co. Ltd., a private company which had been established in Lismore.

Farmers would take fresh milk to the separating stations twice a day. They would wait until the cream was separated and then return home with the skim milk, which they would feed to calves or pigs. This wasted much of the farmer’s time but the skim milk was important to his livelihood. The waiting was popular with village businesses as, while the farmers waited, they often purchased items at the shops. Towns grew up quickly around a station if there was not one there already.
Farm cleared from the Big Scrub

Part 3: Overcoming Problems

1. Pasture Grasses

The Richmond River District was found to be suitable for dairying and production could be maintained throughout the twelve months of the year unlike some of the other areas where production fell sharply in the winter months. This was one of the things which attracted South Coast farmers to the area in the first place. However, the native grasses were found to be unsuitable for intensive dairying.

The problem had been recognized as early as the 1870s and several people had therefore experimented with different pasture grasses in an effort to find a suitable grass. One of these people was Edwin Seccombe who, in 1892, obtained a shipment of Japanese clover seed. When the seeds were sown it was found that there were some stray seeds amongst them and these were later identified as paspalum dilatitum.

The grass grew well and Seccombe, together with the Town Clerk of Lismore, Charles Barham, and the Mayor, James Barrie, decided to plant some seeds in the grounds of the Council Chambers. The grass flourished, so much so that it had to be fenced in securely to prevent people from stealing the grass itself and the seeds produced by it. Small quantities of seed were available in 1893 and 1894 and its popularity spread. By 1900 it was the major pasture grass on the North Coast.

Its effect can be judged from what happened at the Garrard property “Booerie”, near Lismore. The Garrards were one of the first families to introduce dairying and around 1885 they had a herd of Ayrshires. These were big animals which did well on native grasses and foraging on the steep hillsides. However, the butterfat yield was not as good as with some other breeds such as Jerseys and Guernseys. The Garrards would have preferred the latter but they required much better pasture. When paspalum was sown they were able to change their herd, and their dairy farm became much more productive.

2. Tuberculosis

A second problem was the presence of tuberculosis bacillus in milk. This had been a problem throughout the industry and could cause the disease to be passed to humans as well as to other animals. It was not until pasteurisation was introduced that this problem was solved. Herds on the South Coast had been decimated by tuberculosis and it was suspected that the separating stations had helped to spread the disease. When milk was taken to the stations it was pooled before separation. The separated milk taken away by farmers to feed calves and pigs could, therefore, be contaminated by milk from another herd, and the disease be transferred to healthy animals.

The N.S.W. Creamery Butter Co. Ltd. factory in Lismore had a pasteurising plant and was popular with farmers because of this. The problem did not prevent the overall establishment of cooperatives and separating stations on the North Coast, however.

With the availability of smaller separators, which were less expensive, most farmers were able to purchase their own machine. This meant that milk could be separated on the farm and the risk of disease being transmitted from one herd to another via skim milk was overcome.

In 1901 the first private separator was installed on the North Coast. By 1911 there were 5500. Originally these were hand operated but as the industry developed, engines, first steam-powered and later petrol-driven, were used to operate them.

3. Central Cooperatives

The cooperative movement could see the benefits of central processing of products. A more consistent and high quality product could be produced at a lower price. In 1892 W. Moses called a meeting at Clunes in an effort to establish such a cooperative. Byron Bay was considered the ideal site as the jetty had been opened in 1888 thereby giving easy access to shipping and a world market. In addition, the much awaited railway between Lismore and Murwillumbah, via Byron Bay, had started in 1891 and was expected to be completed shortly. It was completed in December 1894. This would do away with the major transport problems experienced by the industry and allow easy access to Byron Bay. As the River was the lifeline to the first settlers so the railway was seen as the lifeline to the inland settlers.

After several delays the North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Cooperative Ltd. began operations on 5 June 1895 at Byron Bay. By 1897 it had seven separating stations supplying it. In addition it had approximately 100 individual suppliers. The number of individual suppliers was to increase as the years passed and eventually the separating stations ceased to exist. A few were upgraded to branch factories. In 1904 the N.C.F.F. & C.S. Coop. Ltd. changed its name to Norco.

Although Norco was eventually to dominate the industry there were several other cooperatives in the area. Many of these later merged with Norco but not for some years, e.g. Ballina Cooperative in 1929 and Casino Dairy Cooperative in 1975.

The original factory to be established on the North Coast, the privately owned N.S.W. Creamery Butter Co. Ltd. was later taken over by the Lismore Coop. Dairy Co. which later merged with Norco. Foley Bros., another proprietary company, became firmly established in Lismore and held a firm share of the market. However, it too was purchased by Norco in 1958.

4. Cream Quality

One invention which proved of great benefit to the industry was the Babcock Tester. This gauged the amount of butterfat in milk. Previously all suppliers were paid at the same rate for their milk or cream, by quantity. Some farmers added water to the milk so that it would bring them a greater return. This was futile if the payment was made for quality rather than quantity. With the Babcock tester the more efficient farmer with the superior dairy herd benefited.

5. Wollongbar Experimental Farm

industry as a whole had tried to improve over the years. Milking machines had been introduced, firstly with petrol engines and later with electricity. There had been problems with tick infestations, however, and cattle had to be dipped at regular intervals in an effort to control the pest. Infertility in the soil was also a problem. It was found that the shallow basalt soils of the Big Scrub soon became infertile and therefore even pasture grasses, even paspalum, were not sufficient to keep production high. Hand feeding was expensive and beyond the means of most farmers.

Improving product quality required farmers to improve their herds by buying quality stock, and by improving pastures. To assist with this, in 1894, the New South Wales government established the Wollongbar Experimental Farm. Among other tasks it established Shorthorn and Ayrshire herds. These breeds were the basis of the Australian Illawarra Shorthorn which had become an established breed on the South Coast and was later introduced to the North Coast. In 1915 the Experimental Farm changed to Guernseys which remained until the 1950s when the farm became an Agricultural Research Station. The herd was transferred to Yanco.

Part 4: Marketing; The Milk Zone War


Traditionally, most of the milk produced in the Richmond River District was separated and the cream made into butter. Some whole milk was sold locally while a small amount was made into cheese.

As early as 1897 Richmond River butter was sent to the British market. There is at least one report of this butter being sold as top quality at the highest price then offering, 104 shillings per hundred-weight, (approx. $0.25 per kilo). Agents were contracted to sell the butter overseas and the market was very unstable for most farmers until the central factories, especially the cooperatives, were established. Britain soon became Australia’s major market. In 1896 592,962 lbs. (approx. 300,000 kilos) of butter were exported by New South Wales to the United Kingdom. By 1905 it was over 17 million lbs. (approx. 8.5 million kilos).

It was sometimes difficult to maintain top quality products. Hygiene was ignored by some farmers and some separating stations. Australia was, however, competing on the world market against countries like Denmark which had had a very high standard for many years. Something had to be done.

In 1901 the New South Wales Government introduced industry regulations. All dairies had to be registered. Standards were set and had to be maintained as inspectors were employed to make regular visits to farms and factories. In 1908 the Pure Foods Act was introduced. This added to the restrictions, but also aimed at a better product and, theoretically, a better income.

With the outbreak of the World War in 1914 Australia became established as the chief supplier of dairy products to Britain. All surplus butter and cheese was exported and prices were good. However, with the end of the war in 1918 prices became more unstable and then fell dramatically. It was felt that more controls were required to stabilize the industry in Australia.

In 1924 the Australian Dairy Produce Board was established. Part of its role was to supervise the industry throughout Australia. To stabilize prices a levy was placed on all home consumption so that export sales could be subsidised. Over the years various other Boards were established but all had the primary aim of stabilizing export prices and therefore stabilizing the industry itself.

The Milk Zone War

At the same time, in New South Wales, another element was working in the market place. This was in the sale of whole milk to the domestic market. Because of its distance from large population centres the Richmond River District had concentrated mainly on the manufacture and sale of milk by-products. The dairying areas nearer to Sydney, however, had the benefit of being able to supply the increasingly lucrative metropolitan whole-milk market.

This would not have mattered apart from the fact that the milk supplier received considerably more per litre than the cream supplier. In 1929, for example, the amount paid to the milk supplier was more than double that paid to the cream supplier. Naturally the Richmond River District suppliers wished to be part of the richer market. However, this was not possible because of government restrictions.

In 1929 the Metropolitan Milk Board had been established to collect milk for distribution throughout the Sydney area. A price war resulted as suppliers tried to enter the market. In 1931 its name was changed to the Milk Board and a Milk Zone was set up. This restricted the area from which the milk could be supplied. North Coast farmers or factories were not

allowed to send milk to the Milk Board. This virtually split the dairying industry in two by legislation. For many years the farmers on the North Coast lobbied state governments in an effort to enter the Milk Zone. It was obvious that farmer action was required. This was not new to the farmers of the Richmond: they had formed cooperatives to process and distribute their products; they had formed agricultural societies to promote communication and education of farmers and to distribute information. Lismore was at the centre of both these movements. In addition the value of a pasture grass had been found in the Lismore district. Without this there may not have been a dairying industry.

One major force in this new battle was the Primary Producers Union (PPU) which had been established on 15 December 1915 at a meeting of Norco shareholders. The PPU had become a state-wide organization with a District Council based in Lismore and its own publication, The Primary Producer, distributed from Lismore. It was to remain an active force for many years. There were some splinter groups, the major one being the Australian Primary Producers Union (APPU).

Much political turmoil revolved around the quota problem. Lobbying, principally by Norco and the PPU, did not see any relaxation of the system until the late 1940s. This was partly for the convenience of the Board rather than to help the northern farmers, however. The Milk Zone was starved of milk in the winter months as production declined. Production was more stable on the North Coast throughout the year. In 1949 Lismore’s Norco factory supplied the shortfall. Between 1951 and 1955 this increased as population, and therefore demand, within the Milk zone grew and by the end of the 1950s Norco was supplying approximately 40,000 gallons weekly.

Dairy belonging to Lancaster family of Dalwood
Part 5: Defeat in Victory for the North; The End of an Era

Defeat in Victory for the North

With more bulk milk being required bulk collection by tanker was begun in Lismore in 1969. In 1970 the Milk Board was replaced by the Dairy Industry Authority (DIA). This had been established under the Dairy Industry Act of June 1970. It was responsible for all aspects of the industry: registration of dairies, quality control, supervision and distribution of the product including sales, registration of milk vendors, and even artificial insemination to improve stock.

With the formation of the DIA bulk milk collection became compulsory. This was to be phased in by 1975 and new regulations to force farmers to upgrade their dairies, including refrigerated holding tanks, were introduced.

The DIA virtually closed the industry to new suppliers. An office was opened in Lismore soon after the Authority was established. This was seen as a good sign by local people and by 1972 it had a staff of 11. A new building (complete with “space-age décor”) in Conway Street, Lismore was officially opened in 1975 with great pomp and ceremony. It is ironic, however, that by then its staff had been reduced to seven and the industry in the Richmond River District was in decline.

In 1972 the PPU and the dairying division of the APPU merged to form the Dairy Farmers Association (DFA). This had been formed principally to lobby and negotiate with the Dairy Industry Authority and the Australian Labor Party supported its aims.

It was not until 1976, however, that North Coast farmers were successful in obtaining a share of the metropolitan milk market. When Labor won at the state election in 1975 quotas were reallocated and Norco was given a permanent quota. This meant an all-year access to the Milk Zone.

The End of an Era

World War II had seen a surge in the demand for dairy products and overall farm incomes improved at that time. Australia’s increased population through massive post-war migration had also been beneficial. However, the granting of a quota to Norco really saw the end of the dairy industry on the North Coast as originally established. It was the beginning of the end for the cream supplier. For those who could remain in the industry it was a great step forward, however. Wages and machinery costs had been increasing rapidly and many farmers had been relying on family members to keep the farms going. The hard work and constant hours (cows had to be milked twice a day and holidays were rare for the dairy farmer) meant that few young people wanted to stay in the industry. The average age of the dairy farmer on the north coast by the 1960s was approx. 55 years of age. Many of the farmers were much older.

For many the change came too late. Regulations were strict, and improvements were necessary as most dairies were below standard. Those who were not too old to make the change could not finance the improvements. Some farmers turned to beef production, some sold to neighbouring farmers, some sold to hobby farmers or speculators. The North Coast had become a popular tourist and retirement location!

The successful farmers, by expanding their holdings, increased their income. More mechanization could be used, expensive machines such as rotary milking machine units could be installed, electric fences and strip feeding could replace wasteful pasture grazing. The industry became more efficient but, perhaps, in so doing lost some of its character.

Today there are fewer dairy farms in the Lismore District. Many of the little towns and villages have disappeared unless they have become dormitory suburbs or tourist attractions. Many farms which used to run dairies have been turned into tropical fruit or macadamia nut plantations.

Norco continued to prosper, spread to other districts, and diversified its products. Instead of being simply a farmers’ cooperative, it became a commercial giant and a major force in the economy of Lismore.

However, in recent years the dairying industry has been de-regulated. This has meant that “Big Business” has taken over. Dairy companies have had to fight for their share of the market, especially with huge supermarkets like Woolworths and Coles. Some companies have been taken over by international interests or have merged with other cooperatives. Norco has had to adapt to this new world.

Similarly, the dairy farmer has had to adapt. The small independent dairy farmer no longer exists. His management skills are now as important as his farming skills.

Return to top