Nestled high on the lush green Beechmont plateau sits Providence Farm, with glorious views sweeping across Numinbah Valley, out to the Gold Coast and the sea. When Greg McKenzie’s parents were ready to retire, Greg and his wife, Wendy, took over the traditional dairy farm, which has been in Greg’s family since 1880. Due to deregulation of the milk industry, the farm — like many small dairies around the region — was squeezed out of the industry. Greg and Wendy made the decision to go it alone: to produce bath milk and shower cream from their cows’ milk, and soap made from the milk of their goats. They sell their products from their roadside stall, and via direct delivery to their regular customers. The McKenzies also own the charming Providence Farm Hall, next door, built in the 1940s, and available for hire for weddings and events. (Roadside stall: 1428 Beechmont Road)
GREG AND WENDY MCKENZIE
Tell us about the beginnings of Providence Farm.
GREG: My great-grandfather came here in 1880 and selected this particular block. There were only three families, here at Beechmont — the first three pioneer families. Before that, the area had been opened up to timber-getters chasing cedar and pine, and using bullock teams to haul the timber out, so that created the tracks of the roads to allow the settlers to come in. My great-grandfather actually came to help to build a house for the Fitzgeralds, the family next door. When he came up here, he liked it that much he selected the block next door. Once you had made your selection, you had to make a certain amount of improvements or you lost your selection, and, 125 years ago, the improvements meant chopping down all of the trees.
The whole mountain was rainforest. Binna Burra is the classic example of what it was all like. It was what they call vine scrub, and so they felled it all by hand. There were no chainsaws; it was all axes and crosscut saws in those times. Some of the timber would have gone back Canungra way, down to Laheys sawmill, but most of the timber would have just been burnt. They’d put the scrub down and then burn it around this time of year — around about September — and they had tremendous growth because of all of the ash that was left. Fertility was great at first, but then erosion and a lot of other things happened.
My family initially grew citrus — it was one of the first crops grown in Beechmont, and we were very successful. We grew some tremendous citrus crops. But, apparently fruit fly found them and there was no answer to the fruit fly at that time, and it virtually wiped them out. After that, there were a couple of families that came in from northern NSW and they happened to be dairy farmers, and they brought the first dairy cattle, here to Beechmont. That is where the dairy industry started. Everybody else joined in, and the whole mountain was just dairying for many, many years.
Did you always want to work on the family farm?
GREG: I went to school up here and when I finished year 10, I didn’t want to go to school anymore — I actually wanted to come back on the farm. Dad said, ‘Well, that’s great. You can come back and work on the farm. There’s plenty for you to do. But I can’t afford to pay you. My advice,’ he said, ‘would be to go away and get a trade.’ That’s what ended up happening. I went to the Coast and got a trade as a cabinetmaker. I worked until I was twenty-one.
Wendy and I were married, and we built a house down on the Coast, and Mum and Dad got to the age where they were looking to retire. I said, ‘Well, if you are going to retire, we don’t really want to see the farm sold. We’d like to have a go at running the farm.’ And, that’s what happened. We bought the farm from Mum and Dad. Initially, they were going to move down to the Coast, but we came up with the decision that it was silly for them to move away from the place they’d lived all of their lives, so Mum and Dad stayed in their house, across the road. Dad has been gone thirteen years now, but Mum is still over there by herself. She has just turned ninety, and still looks after her chooks and the garden, and has constant contact with all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
How did you two meet?
WENDY: We met at a Springbrook dance. My dad was in a dance band — he and his brothers and a friend had a band that played old-time music around all of the dances. Greg and some of his mates were up at Springbrook … in their panel vans.
GREG: Mind you, Wendy was only fourteen and I was only sixteen. Wendy’s family were dairy farmers at Numinbah, and Wendy was a Panitz. You know, Panitz Bakery?
WENDY: There was a bakery at Nerang, a bakery at Mudgeeraba and a Panitz bakery right in the centre of Beaudesert that my granddad’s brother had. My mother’s father was a banana grower. There were a lot of bananas grown in this area, too, up on the steep hills, up above the frost line.
GREG: So, we’re both from pioneer families, here in the hinterland. And, when you get among the old families, they’re all related. Connections.
How many cows do you have?
GREG: We are milking just on fifty cows at the moment, and we don’t supply any processors. Probably about half of the milk we produce, we sell here on the farm. People actually come onto the farm and buy it from the dairy. It is an honesty system. The rest of it we deliver down to the Coast. It is sold as bath milk, and labelled ‘Bath Milk’ and ‘Not for Human Consumption’. And we sell shower cream.
What else do you sell?
GREG: Vegies and honey. Dan, our son, produces some honey and there is another local honey producer on the mountain, and we sell his honey as well.
WENDY: We sell soaps made from the goat milk, and a bath oil that mixes with the bath milk.
GREG: The essential oils — if you just put them in your bath, the oils float on the water. If you actually take the essential oil and mix it with some milk first, because of the fattiness of the milk, the oil absorbs into it, and then if you put it in the bath, it goes through the whole lot.
What do you feed the cows?
GREG: We collect bread twice a week. We go down to the Coast and collect leftover bread from a shop down there. The refrigerated truck that we use to deliver milk down to the Coast, we fill it up. It has come about because we have been struggling to cut costs as much as we can. Bread is something you can feed the cows, but you have to be careful you don’t overdo it. You can actually kill cows by feeding them too much bread. The worst thing you can do, if a cow hasn’t eaten bread before, is give them a whole heap of bread. They’ll just eat until they bust. So, there is only a certain amount of bread you can feed them.
The other thing is vegetable waste. There is a firm based at Burleigh that processes all of the vegetables for the restaurants on the Coast. They have a whole pile of waste — peel, rejects, whatever. If they don’t give it to somebody, it actually costs them money to dump it. To go to landfill, it costs them per kilo. So, we have the same sort of arrangement with them: we go once a week and pick up about fourteen half-tonne bins. There’s pumpkin, potato, carrot, capsicum … the whole lot.
We used to feed a prepared grain to the cows in the dairy. Well, we don’t use any of that anymore. We use the vegetables and we use bread. Both the bread and vegetable firms don’t charge us anything. The only cost we have is physically going down and picking it up. The bread — obviously we have to unwrap it when it gets here, but the vegetables are ready to use. And it arrives here as fresh as a daisy because the whole factory is refrigerated.
What do the goats eat?
GREG: Everything bar grass. We have probably only had goats for the last six or seven years. We started because somebody gave us a couple of goats. Because we are trying to do everything organically, weeds are one of the big problems we have, and we don’t want to use any chemicals. We use goats! Over the few years they’ve been here, I really have discovered they are the answer for a lot of the weeds.
WENDY: They don’t eat the whole weed, though. They tend to only eat the flowers.
GREG: Well, there are a lot of weeds that are poisonous to a lot of the animals, but they are only poisonous if the animal eats just that weed and nothing else. Goats are what they call browsers. If you watch them, they’ll nibble here, nibble there, and it is something different all of the time. They love Scotch thistles, particularly the purple flower on the Scotch thistle that has prickles all over it — they’ll nip that off and roll it around in their mouths. If you are getting rid of the flower, you are getting rid of the seed.
So, the introduction of the goats was when we were looking for something to take care of the weeds, more than for the milking. The goats we were given were actually milking goats and we thought that if we were going to have goats, we may as well milk them. And that is where we’ve ended up at the moment: with about fifty-odd goats and expanding. The goat milk is raw, not processed.
WENDY: We make goat milk soaps.
So, you’re now an independent dairy?
GREG: We actually made the decision after deregulation that we weren’t going to make a go of it. We had plans to build a new dairy and there were quite a few things we were going to do just prior to the deregulation coming out. We got wind of it and said, ‘Righto, hang on. We’ll put a hold on everything, and sit and wait to see what happens.’ It was probably a good decision because we would have had to commit ourselves to a fair bit of debt and, with deregulation, it probably would have put us out of business.
We continued to work in the deregulated industry, but like most of the small dairies around, we were just squeezed out. The prices kept going back and back. Our processor would come to us and say, ‘Great news, boys. We’ve just won the contract for the next twelve months at the supermarket. Bad news is we had to drop the price to win the contract, and that means you are going to get paid less.’ That’s the way it works now. That’s the deregulated industry.
That’s why this whole idea of getting people to support their local farmers is important — because, if they don’t, there won’t be farmers. I am not just talking dairy farmers. The Australian public needs to start being prepared to pay what things are worth. The farmers, in the chain of things, are the ones who take all of the risk. We are open to the weather, to all of the different conditions that can happen. We take all of the risk as other people sit and take the milk and make money out of it. Once again, I am not just talking about milk; I am talking about vegies and the whole thing.