Craig Fletcher from Meerlieu talks dairy farm challenges

Meerlieu dairy farmer Craig Fletcher features in September's Farming Conversations with Gippsland Jersey. Photo: Contributed

GIPPSLAND Jersey’s 2023 ‘Farming Conversations’ calendar includes the stories of 12 Gippsland farmers, who speak with Gippsland Jersey co-founder and director, Sallie Jones about rural mental health.

September’s story features a chat with Craig Fletcher, a dairy farmer from Meerlieu.

Sallie Jones: How long have you guys (Craig and partner Cindy) been in the dairy industry?

Craig Fletcher: I was born into it, but I did have 15 years out of it as an agricultural consultant and orchard developer, at the same time as a beef and sheep farmer. I’m originally from Princetown, in south-west Victoria.

Tell me about your farm.

We have been certified organic for some time and we’re hoping to be certified biodynamic very soon.

With Craig Fletcher’s farming community affected by suicide, he wants to help as many people as possible.

What was the decision for going biodynamic?

So, I already had the desire. I was an organic farmer, even though we weren’t certified, it was our farming practices.

At the time of the Murray Goulburn collapse we were share-farming with John Vardy on this farm for eight years. The crash affected us all and we were in trouble. I still to this day don’t know how we negotiated out of the debt and everything that we were in at the time, but between that happening and now, we have managed to get back on track financially.

Four years after the Murray Goulburn collapse, we were in a position to buy the farm and that’s all to do with us changing the way we farmed. I’d been slowly transitioning the farm since I arrived here, not always in agreement with John, but, given that we’re on sheep country, the organic practices have allowed us to continue to make milk.

We milk 600 cows with virtually no inputs. Most farmers want to be good stewards of their land and do the right thing by the grass, and the cows, and everybody wants to treat their calves well. For us, that’s not using all the poisons that every salesperson is out to sell you.

In our first year of being certified organic, we had the collapse of Organic Dairy Farmers of Australia, and we lost even more money than we did with the Murray Goulburn collapse.

At one stage, when we lost $450,000, we kind of got up like nothing happened because we didn’t have the input costs coming in, piling up the bills. We just knuckled down and got on with it. We lost $1,000,000 in milk payments in five years overall. However, despite this, we really have made our business sustainable and profitable by farming this way.

That’s such a success story, isn’t it?

Well, we think it is. You know, it’s may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it works for us.

Every farm
is different. We take pride knowing we provide premium milk for Australians and we stand by what we do as being environmentally friendly and sustainable.

I just want to say Sallie, that one of the biggest motivations for this was that we would spend up to $700,000 in fertiliser every year, but we didn’t want to put future financial stress on our children. If it won’t grow here, we won’t grow it.

As a farmer you work with what you’ve got. You work with the soil. We try out different seeds and different pastures 
and we’re always experimenting. When you find something that works, you go with it.

We survived losing millions in milk payments, and we’ve stuck it out through the worst drought in recorded history. And we survived it too. Without any inputs!

You think other farmers would be really wanting to know how you did it?

Well, they don’t tend to believe in it. Unless you’ve got the right mindset, you can’t see it.

There’s a lot
of great salesmen out there all promising results from many products. I’ve had people tell me that they like my farming model and they want to pick the eyes out of it, and that’s fine, but they don’t have the balls to implement it and have faith in themselves that they can do it. And not many people in a bad financial situation have been prepared to go against the grain because they can’t afford to; they can’t afford to lose. We go organic for the higher milk money, we decided that we would like to get paid for what it is that we do.

What was your flick-the-switch moment?

For me it was when I was milking 1600 cows and every Monday a salesman/agronomist would call into my dairy demanding 10 minutes of my time, which I didn’t have, so they could work out what they were going to make for the day or the month.

One Monday morning I’d worked all weekend, and he decided
to tell me all about his fabulous long weekend of holidaying with his all-expenses paid work car, and with his family (I don’t begrudge this).

When he drove out, I had a light-switch moment that no one cared about my farm or me, they just wanted to make a profit. So, that was when I decided that if it didn’t grow here, I wouldn’t grow it.

Wow. That is a defining moment for you.

When he was talking to me it was painful to hear. Basically, I wasn’t prepared to be in his pocket any longer. So, I decided that I needed to do something for my own mental health and my own well-being, and to make sure that this job was sustainable for
 the future of my family, because I couldn’t continue 
as it was.

I was told by Dairy Australia that we’re not represented by them if we are organic dairy farmers in any way, shape or form. They asked me why it would be important for me to go organic, and I said ‘Well, because if things go bad, people are going to be looking to people like myself, to find out alternative ways to farm their country with no inputs’.

There needs to be support and having a knowledge group would be recommended.

Craig and Cindy’s farm is in Meerlieu, just near Lindenow in East Gippsland. Photos: Gippsland Jersey.

How do you keep your own mental health in check when you’ve been stretched and challenged?

I actually have to say that I personally don’t feel as if I’ve had a mental illness day in my life. I mean, we’ve had stress for sure. We’ve got a son who’s been affected with mental illness. That’s been hard, and it’s really tested our mettle.

During farm challenges I understand it’s my created reality. I have put myself in this position, so I don’t blame anybody else for me being here. It’s what I wanted to do. There are always options, so, you know, the challenge to me is part of the experience of what farming is about.

We’ve actually been plagued by suicide here. It happened to one of my best friends who we’d been helping out, a farm manager who lived here in the house with his family, and other close friends in the district who have done the same, all over a five-year period.

It affects the community, and it affects the children, and it affects everybody. But we certainly feel blessed that we’ve had this opportunity to help people as best we could.

Craig and Cindy’s business is sustainable and profitable after they made a number of changes.

Craig, you were saying you’ve got a daughter that might want to be a cheese maker one day?

She has a double science degree, so she is in the running.

All our children have been employed on the farm. All have milked and all are capable of bringing something to the farm. Time will tell.

Lifeline is available 24 hours a day: 13 11 14