There’s no sugar coating it: drought isn’t sexy. Nobody wants to hear about it, and many of us who live an urban existence don’t know much about it, if we’re honest.
But thanks to the explosive popularisation of food, what we do find sexy is great produce. We love talking about it, eating it, Instagramming it, but oftentimes we forget that everything we celebrate was nourished from the ground and cultivated by hardworking producers. So while drought may not affect those of us in the city directly, would we feel the loss of our favourite buttermilk ricotta, cultured butter or dish at a restaurant?
The reality of losing it all is always on the cards for a farmer, and none more so than for sixth-generation dairy farmer John Fairley, who operates Country Valley on the edge of the Sydney basin. With over 18 months of no rain, winter on the way and no feed for his herd of award-winning dairy cattle, Fairley decided to do a very vulnerable and public thing.
"One of our options we put on the table was to shut the dairy down. I just can’t do it.”
“The time has come to swallow my pride and ask for help. The realisation that we will be fully feeding cows all winter has arrived. Even if it rains next week and we get crops in, it will get cold and we still have no feed. My 83 year old dad said he’s never seen it worse than this. One of our options we put on the table was to shut the dairy down. I just can’t do it,” he wrote on Country Valley’s Instagram account.
“I have estimated that it will cost $1350 per cow to feed her until the end of September. And I have 130 cows to feed.”
“The post from John broke my heart,” says Sydney cheesemaker Kristen Allan. “He supplies my milk and with the drought on, we don’t hear enough stories about how it’s affecting farmers and their lives and businesses,” she says.
It’s a bold move to publically ask for help, and one not easy for a man described by Icebergs executive chef Monty Koludrovic as ‘a humble and quiet man’. “It’s always been obvious to me that John has an outstanding product,” says Koludrovic.
"It’s one of the last dairy farms in the Sydney basin and one of the last family-owned operations that exists in Australia. It's a precious resource."
“We make milk the way it should be,” says Fairley. “It isn’t over-processed, and the result is a product we’ve found even some lactose-intolerant people can drink,” says Fairley. But quality comes at a cost. “It’s about 50 cents a litre dearer than a fellow organic milk producer,” he explains.
Cultured butter brand Pepe Saya also relies on Country Valley’s milk. “It’s one of the last dairy farms in the Sydney basin and one of the last family-owned operations that exists in Australia,” says owner Pierre Issa. “It’s a precious resource.”
But it’s not only a matter of economics, but also about family heritage: “As a [seventh] generation dairy farmer, you will find that John carries certain pressures not to be the one to lose the farm,” says Issa.
Country Valley is asking supporters to adopt a cow to help them get them through to spring. In exchange, “you will receive a photo of your cow, which you can name if you like,” writes John on Country Valley’s Instagram account. “Then we are offering a visit to the farm on a roster basis over time. You can introduce yourself, to the cow that is, and me as well, of course. You can milk a cow, which might not necessarily be yours, depending on the timing. We finish the day by helping to feed the calves.”
The outpouring of support so far will help the family get through the winter, but their situation will only truly improve with rain. “We always live in hope,” Fairley says. We don’t doubt it.
If you’d like to help by adopting a cow, or donating funds, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.