‘Happy milk’: the dairy family that sustains a fair shake of the bottle

A viral video in 2018 propelled the Hickey family to quit working with supermarkets and instead sell milk by the glass bottle directly to consumers

Fat cows nursing half-grown calves aren’t a common sight on a dairy farm. Nor are empty glass milk bottles left on the front porch – not these days, anyway. But Shane Hickey, a Northern Rivers dairy farmer, isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

In 2018, at the height of the drought, he posted a video on Facebook that quickly went viral. After receiving his monthly milk cheque Hickey calculated that he’d been working for just $2.46 an hour and wouldn’t be able to cover the bills. He also called out the big supermarkets to pay more to dairy producers.

Although the video turned him into a minor celebrity, Hickey never got a response from the supermarkets. When he later asked for a higher price, his milk company responded that their rate was “fair and sustainable”.

But, he asks, “How is it fair and sustainable if we’re all going broke?”

Shane and Julia Hickey still farm on the family property at Lynchs Creek, near Kyogle. A lot has changed since 2018. There are lush paddocks full of clover instead of the brown, drought-affected hills in the background of Shane’s video and the Hickeys now sell the milk from their herd of 70 mostly Jersey-cross cows direct to consumers through an old-fashioned glass bottle delivery service.

In some ways it’s a step into the past, but Hickey says, “People want milk in glass bottles. They want home deliveries again. They want to know where their milk is coming from and the story behind it.”

Farm gate prices for milk producers are predicted to reach 72.5 cents a litre in 2022-23. Yet dairy farmers still face the stress of fluctuating payments and penalties even while supermarket prices remain stable.

In comparison, the Hickeys’ milk sells for $2.65-$3.50 per litre. Although setting up the creamery has been expensive, the family believes that their new enterprise will be worth the effort.

According to Hickey, one of the biggest benefits is a steady price. “Now we get the money that we need consistently for our product. There’s none of this ups and downs bullshit,” he says.

Local uptake of their milk delivery has been good. Customers are willing to pay a little bit more, knowing the money is going directly to the farmer.

Hickey is adamant: “We’ve produced a good product. We’ve done everything right by the animals, everything right by the soil, everything right by the environment. So this is what it should be worth.”

The Hickey family, with the children holding glass bottles of milk
Shane and Julia Hickey with their children. Photograph: Rachael Lebeter/Supplied

Selling their milk in returnable glass bottles is one way that the Hickeys have chosen to protect the environment. The bottles are cheaper than plastic and can be reused up to 50 times, although changing people’s behaviour about returning them has been a challenge.

The Hickeys say they farm “regeneratively”. Forgoing synthetic fertilisers and chemicals, they make their own bio fertiliser. They also keep the dairy cows with their calves, allowing the calves to consume milk that could otherwise be sold. It costs more to farm this way, but “it is not about the money”.

The direct-to-consumer business is easily as much work as large-scale dairying. Although he spends less time milking, Hickey can spend two days a week just washing bottles, in addition to processing the milk, making deliveries, marketing and other tasks.

Still, life is simpler now that the Hickeys are no longer “fighting natural cycles,” as Julia puts it, by separating cows and calves or working to industrial processors’ schedules. Shane says that dairy farmers supplying the factories often start at 3.30am, waking cows in the paddock and hurrying them in for milking, so that the milk is cold for the early morning tanker.

These days, instead of a morning rush, the Hickeys get family time.

“I get up at 6.30 and we all sit around. We have breakfast together and put the kids on the bus,” Hickey says. “Then I’ll wander up the hill and milk the cows, because they’ve come home by then by themselves. There’s no stress. Then the cows go out with the calves. Done. And I’m like, this is so much better … They’re down there, kicking their heels up, running around.”

The Hickeys haven’t done the maths on their new enterprise yet. After two years setting up, they are only now getting close to where they want to be. While their glass-bottled milk is becoming popular in the community, the family is focused on taking care of the animals and the environment.

In Hickey’s words, “You’re really drinking happy milk.”

Rachael Lebeter

The GuardianTramp

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