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To flee the coop: Small producers calling it a day in exchange for family time

Words by Della Vreeland
Images Supplied

Eight years ago, Bruce and Roz Burton transformed their 20-hectare acreage into an operational farm growing award-winning Sommerlad chickens, and occasionally some sheep, cattle and old-fashioned fruit and veggies.

Just as nature intended, slowly and tenderly, the couple spent years finding the best produce with truly unique textures and flavours, and supplying some of Australia’s best chefs and restaurants under the name Milking Yard Farm.

Now, almost a decade later, and following two years of financial difficulties as a result of the health pandemic, the Burtons have made the decision to close up their beloved venture.

‘The business really wasn’t at a sustainable size in its current shape, so what that meant was I couldn’t afford to have enough help to allow me to get off the tills and spend more time running the business. It needed to be bigger,’ Bruce says.

‘Another of the challenges was that supply from the abattoir and boning room was at risk because they’re growing so much they couldn’t really handle us, so we were asked to find somewhere else if we could. That meant we’d have to build our own abattoir or coop and it’s a big investment.

It just wasn’t profitable enough.

According to Bruce, Milking Yard Farm lost all its restaurant revenue overnight once the COVID pandemic hit. ‘That was half the business,’ he recalls. While he says the farm did indeed ‘pivot’ – introducing the Community Sustained Agriculture model, as well as online sales – he says the business would need to expand significantly in order to remain viable.

The closure of small regional businesses is a familiar story in the current climate. The health pandemic, the soaring cost of fuel, the overseas war crisis, and even the interstate floods all have ripple effects when it comes to how businesses are coping. At the end of the day, business owners simply yearn for space to breathe and time to spend with their loved ones.

‘We will keep farming , running sheep and cattle, and growing food and spending more time with our expanding pool of grandchildren,’ Bruce says. ‘We’re looking forward to that.’

The tale’s the same in Healesville, where Yarra Valley Pasta has decided to close up shop after 25 years.

While the providore’s retail offering was consistent during the pandemic, owner Lisa Giffard says it was finally time to focus on her boys, her mum and her dad and diminish some of her stress for her own sake and that of her family.

She says with the rising price of fuel, and with the demand on wheat crops – particularly with the floods and overseas war crisis – now was a tough time to be a food producer.

‘When we opened in 1997 there was nothing in Healesville. You couldn’t get a decent cup of espresso anywhere, so we were new and exciting. Of course [the business] has had lots of different lives, but it was time to reinvent again and in order for the business to thrive, I would need to dig a lot deeper and find a different energy and headspace.’ she says.

‘All those floods in the northern rivers where our wheat comes from, and all the stuff happening in the Ukraine and overseas – the government could quite possibly want to allocate wheat to them and not to us. It’s interesting to see how the events in the world affect a little food producer like me. I know all those stresses coming up that are going to really affect me and ultimately my family.’

Yarra Valley Pasta was integral in cultivating the town’s reputation for artisan produce and global dining, so choosing to close its doors took a lot of courage on Lisa’s part. But she says she’s eager for the next chapter.

‘You have to have the confidence to do it,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are scared, and of course there are financial commitments and I get that.’

25 years is a long time. My time’s up. It’s alright to change and to do something different. When you close one door, another one opens.

For Bruce, he too is maintaining a positive outlook for the future.

‘The way it needs to be for small producers is to have direct relationships with customers,’ Bruce says. ‘Community Sustained Agriculture is the way of the future. It was evidenced in the pandemic. People are now prepared to buy online and have their food delivered to their home while they’re not there and have it sit at their doorstep.’

‘Our other hope is overcoming structural inefficiencies by having shared abattoirs and boning facilities available for multiple facilities because what’s holding our industry back is a lack of access to those facilities.’

‘Our final hope is that the genetics of birds like ours don’t get lost as growers like ours switch off their businesses. Ours was one of three heritage breeds in Australia, and we need to share and propagate the genetics broadly so reach is greater to consumers across the country and more people can experience chicken how it should be.’

We wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.
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