Passion for Organic Production Gives Birth to Unique Business
Robin and Lois Greer moved to Southland from the Waikato 25 years ago. Among the first generation of dairy farmers to make the shift south, they bought an 80 hectare farm at Tuturau, 20 kilometres south-east of Gore, their first property. Share-milking up to that point, Robin had worked previously as a butcher.
In 2005, they made another pioneering step, turning their farm, which by this stage had expanded to 124 hectares, into a fully organic operation.
Three years on, in 2008, they made an even more ambitious move, building a factory on their farm to process their milk into cheese and yoghurt.
While it has been an exhilarating challenge and a successful venture, the Greers recognise the business they have built, Retro Organics, now needs additional investment and extra marketing resource to fulfil the potential of organic dairy production and lift it to the next level. Robin and Lois have decided someone else will be best to take this on, and are therefore selling the farm and the business as a going concern.
Robin says passion is the critical ingredient required to make organic farming work.
“If you have a passion for it, it is easy. We ended up organic because we are passionate about producing quality food. There is such demand for clean food that this will only grow from strength to strength in the future.
“Consumers demand traceable products. In dairy, that means tracking back to the cows your product comes from. Both the farm and the factory are set up to make that as easy as possible”, he says.
According to Robin, going organic means thinking outside the square.
“You have to forget about all the marketing done by chemical companies, put all that aside and research alternative solutions. That approach makes going organic similar to conventional farming. With any sort of farming, there are any number of issues you must deal with and problems to solve in a practical way. With organic farming, you need to find alternatives, not just go to a pill bottle all the time. Solutions are out there. You need to find them.
“Vets, as well as more and more farmers, are using alternative solutions now. Increasingly, conventional farmers are picking up on some of the solutions we use, when they see these working,” he says.
Being so passionate and driven to build the farm’s production to where it is now, Robin says, farming-wise, the hard yards have all been done. Running 350 Jersey cows, with a 30-a-side herringbone milking shed built in 1994, they produce between 100,000 and 120,000 kilograms of milksolids per annum.
Taking the next step to process and market their milk required even greater courage.
“I had always wanted a dairy factory so processing our own production was a big motivation. It took a lot of research, looking at what was happening in both Australia and New Zealand, exploring the market and working out what consumers out there really wanted. After two years of planning and deciding what we would produce, we were ready to go, sourcing the plant and building the factory,” he says.
What they have created since is one of New Zealand’s only scalable artisan organic dairy processors, capable of producing milk, yoghurt, cheese and butter. Originally focused on supplying the local Southland market, Retro Organics now has distribution throughout New Zealand through specialty food stores, as well as Foodstuffs and Progressive supermarkets, and has taken the first steps into export.
As Robin explains, the name hints at what Retro is all about.
“We handcraft a unique range of boutique dairy products, endeavouring to replicate the ‘good old days’ style of natural food. Our customers give us heartfelt feedback about how they love to take the cream off the top of our milk, which gives them an experience they have not had since the demise of home delivery glass bottles.
“Our lactose-free products have also been well-received and ours is the only lactose-free yoghurt produced from cows’ milk in New Zealand,” he said.
Darrell Duncan, of PGG Wrightson Real Estate, Gore, is marketing Retro Organics on behalf of Robin and Lois. He says it is a well-run, innovative business with plenty of potential.
“At present, the factory is running at 30 per cent of capacity, with plant to produce fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese and butter. Taking on additional supply from other local farmers is a strong prospect and a logical step. With a staff of six, covering administration, processing and sales, and some key distribution contracts in place, everything is set up to expand in that regard, and the opportunity to transition this into an export business will be an enticing prospect for a new owner,” he says.