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Kay sharing her love of animals on the Tommerup family farm, which has survived the threat of deregulation thanks to Kay’s innovation. Image: Contributed.

Innovation saves the family farm

Josh McMahon |

It appeared like the dream was over. Five generations of dairy farming down the drain. Deregulation of the dairy industry spelled certain disaster for many small-scale farmers, and Kay and Dave Tommerup were no exception.

The couple had been advised 18 years ago that to survive deregulation they had to upscale their operation, but it went against their small-farm ethos, a style of farming that put the well-being of the animals first.
“I felt like deregulation was the undoing of our farm – we didn’t know what to do,” Kay told the Clarence Valley Independent.

Financial pressure led to the heartbreaking decision that Kay and Dave would have to sever their partnership with Dave’s parents to take over sole operation of the farm. Both took on additional jobs to bring in extra income – Kay as a bus driver, and Dave maintaining the grounds of the local school. It still wasn’t enough to make ends meet.

Kay’s love of their dairy cows meant she would never compromise their quality of life, and fortunately her vision was shared by their co-operative, Norco. The Tommerups decided, in fact, to downsize their herd and focus on providing the highest quality milk they could – something that Norco welcomed.

“We’ve never been told by Norco that we have to be bigger, and they value the quality of our product. Being part of the co-operative we are the owners, therefor we have more say and we feel more valued,” Kay said.
Yet still, the farm only just broke even.

In an inspiring twist of events, what perhaps was feminine intuition was to turn the tide in the Tommerup’s favour. It was then that Kay had her light-bulb moment: diversify.

The farm became home to pigs, sheep, goats and free-range laying chickens. Spreading their eggs across more baskets, you could say. Diversity gave a new life to the little farm, but no-one could predict the incredible change Kay’s next idea, along with hard work alongside Dave, would create for the family operation.

Inspired by the popularity of an open day where visitors flocked to check out the farm, Kay and Dave set about renovating an old homestead and cottage located on the 80-hectare property. Kay wanted to offer visitors the chance to stay and have a “backstage pass to our farm… a real farm”.

It proved to be a massive hit, attracting an influx of visitors from around Australia and the world, who were keen to experience life on the farm, and enjoy an intimate one-on-one with the animals. Kay and Dave also educate visitors on the benefits of boycotting cheap supermarket-branded $1 per litre milk, to instead support small family farms like theirs.

The improved outlook for the farm meant a lot to Kay – not least of all because she knew how much it meant to Dave.

“The driving force for me in trying to find a way to save the farm and keep it running in a way we were proud of was so that Dave could continue the dairy on the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. It’s who he is and over the years, it has become who I am,” Kay said.

Adding to the farm’s profitability, Kay and Dave worked together to create a shop where tourists could buy produce created at the farm, and take home with them after their stay.

Eighteen years on from deregulation and seeming hopelessness, the Tommerup family farm is thriving, and promises a prosperous future for the next generation.

Although Kay’s love of animals and her refusal to compromise their well-being helped saved the Tommerup family farm, it is, for her, a double-edged sword.

“It is so difficult when it is time to take them to the abattoir – they all have names, and I’m in tears. They trust me and come to me when I call them, and they don’t know what’s about to happen,” she said.

“But it is a farm, and we just can’t keep them.”

Kay said that she isn’t unique in playing a vital role on the family farm – she knows of many women who do this every day.

“It’s a partnership – I don’t know how the farm would be a success without working together,” she said.
“We work as a team in everything that we do – without supporting each other every day; we never could have ridden the rollercoaster that’s been our life for the past 18 years.”