Licking the odds

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

His family had been dairy farmers on Cowaramup's soils since the 1930s and third generation farmer Paul Miller didn't want to be the one who had to shut the gate on the dairy business.

But it had been a tough decade for the industry - deregulation had seen profitability tumble and Paul and wife Trish had some tough questions to answer.

Not the least of which was how much longer their farm business could endure milk prices barely covering the cost of production.

"Because of the state of play in the dairy industry we had to do something," Paul said.

"Traditionally you would have gone into beef but that industry was also a price taker.

"It seemed everyone was in the same boat - they had no control over their industry."

The Millers needed a change up but they didn't want to leave behind the industry that had nurtured two previous generations.

"Looking at the assets we had with the dairy, we decided it would be better to value add to what we already had," Paul said.

The couple investigated cheese making among other things but nothing seemed quite right.

The answer came to the Millers one afternoon when they were sitting on the veranda of a recently renovated cottage they were hoping to rent out.

Thinking that the view was lovely, Paul and Trish decided what they would do - a café serving icecream hand-made from the very milk their cows produced.

The cottage was promptly re-renovated into a café, icecream courses undertaken and equipment ordered.

But in the midst of the couple's excitement about the new venture, WA's dairy industry was dealt another blow when milk processor Challenge Dairy collapsed.

It was the worst possible timing for the Millers, who were left in the predicament of being committed to getting the icecreamery up and running but without any revenue stream for the foreseeable future.

"Challenge Dairy had been on a slide for a while and we were already maxed out debt-wise because we had been on such a low price for our milk," Paul said.

"When Challenge fell over we didn't know whether it would last a week, or two or longer.

"We didn't get paid for three months - we had bills and no income.

"We sold cows to pay the bills and we shrank the (dairy) business but it was a catch 22 because we needed to carry on so we could be on the other side when things improved."

Paul and Trish said the stress was enormous and had Challenge gone broke before they had ordered the icecream making equipment they probably would have abandoned the venture altogether.

But they stuck with it and from that sour experience, their success now tastes even sweeter.

It was with trepidation that the Miller family opened the door of their brand new icecreamery and café on Boxing Day 2010.

Any fears about whether anyone would turn up were quickly allayed.

The local community and friends from across the South West turned up in droves and to date, its opening day was the busiest day of trade experienced by the café.

"Paul was up all night that night making icecream just so we could open our doors the next day," Trish said.

"It by far exceeded our expectations."

Since then the couple, now aided by staff, have made more than 6500 tonnes of icecream in their 50-flavour range and business has continued to blossom.

As well as icecream, through their café the Millers sell milkshakes and full cream milk produced by cows grazing just metres away.

As Paul proudly boasts, "it's cow to cone".

"When we're busy, you can role up for an icecream, and it was literally walking around in the paddock that morning," he said.

The family still milk about 160 cows - for 4000 litres a day at their peak - and although it's drastically reduced from 260 cows three years ago, it's still enough milk to send through to a processor.

Just 2 per cent of the milk produced is made into icecream but it's that 2 per cent which is proving by far the most profitable.

Paul said it had been well and truly worth chasing the value-added dollar, especially considering the farm café business grew 30-40 per cent in its first year.

Like most dairy farmers, for the bulk of their milk sent to a processor, the Millers receive a price which only just covers the cost of production.

Despite that, Paul said they weren't planning to decrease the size of the dairy to cover just what was needed for the value-added products.

"Economies of scale for the dairy means it wouldn't be worth becoming any smaller," he said. "We probably can't reduce numbers unless we were in a position where the icecream well and truly supports the dairy.

"At that point milking would become more of a lifestyle choice."

The couple said although it might be easier to give the early mornings milking cows away and buy in milk from another dairy farmer, they wouldn't do it.

"At the moment everything here is done by hand and we want to keep it like that," Trish said. "We want it to be successful without it being too big. We feel that in general people want to go back to basics.

"People can come here, they can see the dairy, the cows are walking past, and kids - especially those from the city who have never seen a dairy cow - love it."

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