New faces for old Bendigo dairy brand

New faces for old Bendigo dairy brand

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CHEESE FOR THE FUTURE: Symons Organic Dairy founder Bruce Symons opened a dairy processing plant at Mortlake in June this year. Photo by Mark Witte.

CHEESE FOR THE FUTURE: Symons Organic Dairy founder Bruce Symons opened a dairy processing plant at Mortlake in June this year. Photo by Mark Witte.

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Symons Organic Dairy now employs 18 people at Mortlake.

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Bruce Symons remembers delivering milk on a horse and cart around Bendigo in the early 1970s.

"The horse remembered the route," Mr Symons said.

"As kids, even though we weren't all that good with remembering which house got the milk, the horse certainly did."

Symons Dairy was founded by Mr Symons' grandfather, Albert, in 1919 and operated in central Victoria up until the late 1990s when the brand was taken over by Parmalat, around the time shoppers turned to supermarket-branded milk.

While the Symons brand was discontinued, Mr Symons' older brother, Ian, continued to run the distribution business under the same name which last year celebrated its 100th birthday, and is in its third generation of operation.

Building the organic operation

In 2017 Mr Symons relaunched the brand and purchased a factory at Mortlake two years later - the only difference was introducing the word 'organic' to form Symons Organic Dairy.

But organic farming was nothing new to the Symons family.

"I look back at what my grandfather did and think what I'm doing now is not too dissimilar to what he did," Mr Symons said.

"He was supplying milk to his customers long before the use of herbicides and pesticides were used in agriculture so he too was organic in a sense."

Together with business partner and French cheese maker Matthieu Megard, the pair sourced equipment to process their cheeses in the same factory under their respective labels, Symons and L'Artisan Cheese.

Located in the old Clarke's Pies factory, the conversion to produce the vast range of cheeses took five months before the 2500 square-metre facility was opened in June.

Between the two labels, 18 people are employed at the company with a majority of those locals from Mortlake and the surrounding districts.

"For a community the size of Mortlake, it's terrific because there's not a lot of manufacturing factories in the area," Mr Symons said.

"We have some people who may have been farming and for whatever reason their work has ceased, so for them to be able to work in town at the factory year-round provides stability of employment."

The company will process about 100 tonnes of cheese in the next 12 months and has plans to double that in the next two years.

Milk is sourced directly from two organic dairy farmers at Carlisle River and Irrewarra.

Combined volumes between the two cheese labels are less than a million litres a year, however, with plans afoot to increase processing, the company is considering adding a third dairy farmer to the mix in the coming years.

Why organic?

Mr Symons has not only a professional interest in organic dairy, but also a personal one too.

"My kids had intolerances to some food additives and we had been questioning some of the foods we had been eating so organic made a lot of sense to us," he said.

And as the former head of Organic Dairy Farmers of Australia, his understanding of the marketplace was comprehensive to say the least.

"When I left the cooperative, they decided to exit out of a few products, like hard cheese primarily, and that left a gap in the market," Mr Symons said.

"In consultation with my old distributors and retailers, we thought we could fill that gap and that's what we did."

The range includes hard cheeses such as cheddar and parmesan, and other varieties like halloumi, vintage and the yet-to-be-launched mozzarella.

They are stocked in more than 400 stores.

"The parmesan is doing particularly well because it's aged two years but it's also the hardest to make because you have to age it while at the same time pay the farmers and store it, so I'm a bit like a wine maker in a sense and need to have the capital to be able to do all of that," Mr Symons said.

Surprisingly, a strong market for Symons cheese is in Bendigo, put down to the fact shoppers remember the brand growing up.

Mr Symons said consumers were increasingly turning to organic food at a time when people were questioning their food - and health.

"Consumers, if they are given an opportunity and the pricing isn't too high, they will buy it," he said.

"In Australia the challenge has been the industry is small and the costs are high so as we grow, hopefully we can make our organic dairy products more accessible to more consumers because we want to grow a long-term sustainable business."

Another way the Symons brand pays homage to its roots is by the cartoon faces which appear on each individual label.

"My grandfather is on the vintage cheese - that makes sense, my father is on the parmesan, my mother on the 500 grams, my wife is on the shredded cheese and my sons are on the salted and unsalted butters and I'm on the 200-gram organic cheddar," Mr Symons said.

"'I'm starting to run out of family members I want to put on the packs!"

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