Co-Operation is key

Farmers on the North-West of Tasmania formed the Yolla Co-op 40-years-ago. Here are their stories.

Yolla Co-Op - the amazingly successful farmer-owned and operated farm supplies business on Tasmania’s North-West Coast, is celebrating 40 years of operation this year.

To celebrate the occasion this special feature is about explaining its fascinating history to the wider community, celebrating the individuals and small producer groups who came together to form
the Co-operative and to inform readers of the products and services it provides.

The Yolla Co-op boasts two stores now, one at 83 Mount Hicks Rd, Wynyard and a recently opened store at 22810 Bass Highway, Smithton with a total of 15 staff members.

There are currently more than 700 members in the Co-op, as it continues to go from strength to strength, supporting farmers not just with low-priced goods achieved through its collective buying power, but also by providing a social hub, networking opportunities and great physical and mental support to anyone in need in its community.

On May 24 the Wynyard store will be where all the Co-op members gather for the largest in-store open day in the country, with more than 400 people expected through the doors, dozens of specialist stalls showcasing the latest farming innovations and services and thousands of dollars worth of prizes to give away.

A celebration fitting of our 40th birthday. That shows that Tasmanian farms know how to work together and prosper together.

Key influences

Dr Peter Holm

Peter Holm has fulfilled a lot of roles over the years. He has been in the past the president, chairman and director of the Yolla Co-op, he remains the president of the Burnie Chamber of
Commerce and he has been a well-respected veterinarian in the Somerset area for the past 26 years.

Peter and his wife Elizabeth moved to Tasmania from the United Kingdom in 1974 with their two daughters, with one more daughter born in Australia shortly after.

The family moved onto a small property in Elliott, which was familiar territory for Peter who had grown up on a property in the English countryside.

He worked for federal and state agriculture departments for 16 years until he decided to start his own veterinary practice in Somerset in 1991.

Peter recalls a meetup with the then-president of what was known as the Farmer’s Buying Group, a local plumber named Jack Brown, who suggested Peter become a member.

“I was fairly new to the area, having just arrived from the U.K. a few years before, and I figured it would be a great way to get to know the locals,” Peter says.

Within three years, Peter was the president of the group and he recalls the early days of what would later become the Yolla Co-op.

“Each farmer had an area of responsibility. One guy was responsible for tractor seals and fi lters, another was in charge of household goods like toilet rolls,” Peter says with a chuckle.

Shortly after, and following a swell in membership numbers, the group took a bold step forward and appointed their own purchasing officer.

Since then, Peter has been proud to watch the Co-op grow into the supportive community group it is today, aided in part by the Co-op’s incorporation with the Chamber of Commerce.

“I’d always dreamed that one day we’d have a nice big premises in our own right near the highway,” he says.

“Eventually we managed to negotiate the former Elders Websters building, a fantastic purpose-built building, and the Co-op has been growing ever since.”

Peter says he is humbled by the thought of the savings gained from the Co-op and how helpful that has likely been for members over the years.

“Farming is a small profit, big expense industry, and if you can contain your costs you can survive the bad years and flourish during the good ones,” he says.

“I’m sure there were a lot of farmers who only survived because they were Co-op members and the associated savings they gained from that, which meant they could continue to prosper on the land.”

Off the back of a truck

Peter Gladwell

Peter Gladwell was barely in his teens when his father Bob became a founding member of Yolla Co-op.

Years down the track the younger Gladwell, an Elliott-based farmer, took his own place on the co-op board from 1999 to 2011, spending seven years as chair.

"When it started dad was in charge of oats and grass seed," Peter said.

"He would get all the members' orders in early February and some ploughing mates up north who grew seed oats would come to the Elliott Hall, normally on a Friday or Saturday, and all the people who had ordered oats would turn up and get the oats off the back of a truck.

"Then in February or March, the same thing for people who had ordered grass seed."

Peter recalled Derek Ramshaw being instrumental in the co-op's establishment.

"It all started from an ag department discussion group - Derek had seen these groups operate in England," Peter said.

"He said this is how it works and he gave everyrone the idea and the farmers got together to try it, using the English model.

"It just started off with a group of farmers, they were all mates anyway in a small area, they all knew each other, so no one was going to step out of line. Then it grew by word-of-mouth."

The co-op met some challenges in the early days, Peter said.

"At first many of the businesses were a bit reluctant about it - they thought they might miss out on some trade," he said.

"But then they could see if they won a tender they would get more than they usually would.

"The other things was, it was just so new - many had never seen anything like it before.

"They wondered, why is this one person buying on behalf of others? Am I going to get paid?

"But it didn't take long to grow commercial relationships when more and more businesses saw how it worked and they developed a relationship with the person in charge of their area."

Not surprisingly, a huge benefit of Yolla was the ability to offer competitive prices to members.

"Overheads can be a lot less, and also for business houses, they can open themselves up to buyers who mightn't previously have known anything about their business lines," Peter said.

He said it was always good to hear feedback from locals about how they had benefitted from being a part of Yolla Co-op.

"A fair bit of that is about the price but there are other things," Peter said.

"For instance, one farmer with a dairy farm at Deloraine and another around Wynyard went into a produce store I won't name and bought products for his farms on an account for each.

"With some items, even though they were exactly the same, the stuff for one was so much dearer than the other. He was told the reason for that was that one of those places had to compete with Yolla and the other didn't."

Over the years, technology and the internet changed the way Yolla Co-op did business, Peter said.

"When we first started, everything was done on paper and with cheques, but nowadays who has cheque books?.

“The internet has also made buying and tracking produce that much easier.

"It hasn't necessarily made transporting it easier, but ordering stuff and finding out where it is is much easier.”

During his time on the board, Peter saw the turnover grow from less than $1 million to more than $16 million.

The co-op's membership obviously grew as the years went by, Peter said.

"We had it capped at about 200 members for a while, simply because we didn't have the technology in place to handle more," he said.

"There were lots of people on a waiting list and when we finally got new computers and ordering systems and did a deal with transport operators we were able to open that up to 300.

"But we were careful to keep it under control until we had the systems in place to accommodate that."

A co-op is something Peter would definitely recommend to farmers in other parts of Australia and, indeed, the world.

"All you need is a group of like-minded people, but my simplest piece of advice would be not to try to be everything to everyone - some markets already have too many players," he said.

"And don't try to start too big. It's essential to make sure your systems are in place before you expand.

"In the early days of Yolla, what made it work so easily was that everyone knew everyone, so because of that no one would dare not pay for something.

"With credit checks and the like, they were very stringent about who they let in. A larger organisation nowadays could handle the odd bad debt, but if you are small and starting out, you can't afford that.

"And you have to do things right because you can't afford to get yourself a bad reputation - people tend to remember the bad things a lot easier than the good."


Paul and Maria Bidwell

When Paul and Maria Bidwell left Western Australia as empty-nesters eight years ago their plan was to downsize and semi-retire in the coldest state.

Instead at North Motton the Bidwells found the best avocado country in the nation, capable of producing high quality fruit with a distinctly buttery and creamy flavour.

Rather than grow fewer avocados since establishing their Avoland orchard the crop has steadily increased.

The Bidwells are the only commercial avocado grower in Tasmania and have proved the doubters wrong.

The Bidwells prove every day the North-West’s rich red basalt soils and temperate climate are ideal for avocado production.

Mr Bidwell did his research in the different areas of the state.

Their three hectares of avocado trees have grown at an unexpected rate and performed better than thought with the amount of fruit much higher than predicted.

"The older trees that are five going on six years old are already four metres in diameter and almost three metres high. That kind of growth is stunning. I would not have expected that, in fact, that's one of the great surprises of avocados here in Tassie," Mr Bidwell said.

The Australian industry average has one hectare of trees which produce an average of seven to eight tonnes of fruit.

“We thought if we could achieve that average we’ll be pretty good,” Mr Bidwell said.

“Next year in parts of the orchard we’re looking at 15 to 20 tonnes per hectare.

Brand Tasmania executive director, Robert Heazlewood, said the Bidwells provide an “incredibly good example of an innovative farmer being successful after finding a product that already has a market somewhere else and doing what others thought impossible”.

“He’s come along and introduced a commercially-grown product Tasmania hadn’t considered and is showing how to do it. He’s also showing that Tasmanian avocados can be the best in category when available because the fruit can be left on the tree for a bit longer to mature and does not dry out.”

It gives Tasmanian-grown avocados their higher oil content and their own creamy, buttery flavour and the avocados are available at a time when no other quality Australian grown avocados are in the market.

Mr Bidwell said the region’s cooler summers and relatively warm winters actually suit the avocados and they can stay on the trees longer which is an advantage.

The Bidwells have half a hectare of netted trees to keep pests out and their bees in.

"We brought in six bee hives to the netted area, specifically with the idea of forcing the bees to have nothing else to feed on other than the avocado flowers," Mr Bidwell said.

"The end result is a pretty spectacular fruit set.

"These trees have at least twice as many avocados as the other parts of the orchard."

Not bad achievements for a former Telstra technician with an uncertain job future 25 years ago.

Donnybrook in WA where the Bidwells lived was the centre of apple production.

When Mr Bidwell decided on a career change he ordered Pink Lady apple trees to start what he thought would be his new orchard venture.

However, after seeing how well his backyard avocado trees did, and taking on board advice from the agriculture department, he changed direction to plant avocados for their growing market.

By 2008 the Bidwells had 2500 trees and produced more avocados than the mum and dad operators could cope with.

Now they’re in Tassie and not getting any younger the problem was how to cope with Avoland’s growth.

“I’ve worn my wife out just about worn myself out and that’s been our dilemma,” Mr Bidwell said.

“We came here to do a small quantity operation and were agonising about what to do next year because there’s even more fruit on trees.

“We were looking down the barrel but our Melbourne-based civil engineer son who grew up in the avocado orchard in WA is now coming to join this enterprise,” Mr Bidwell said.

He said Tasmania had an exciting future as places like WA became hotter.

“Given the climate is warming we recognised the potential to grow avocados here was going to get better.

“We see a strong future for it and a lot of people are ringing us up wanting to know how to grow avocados...”

Mrs Bidwell said they joined the Yolla Coop to benefit from getting things at a lot cheaper rate.

“That aspect was attractive to us,” she said.

”The service has been very good and whenever we wanted something that was out of the ordinary they were able to go that extra length to get it.”

Grandville Farm - The Batty family

Ideal soil conditions and the right cattle feed has allowed Granville farm to produce milk 12 months a year.

Stagg farm, established by the Batty family about 12 years ago, overlooks the Stanley Nut in Tasmania’s North-West.

Part-owner Grenville Batty said the family made the move to Stanley from Mawbanna, due to the ideal conditions that the Circular Head region offered.

“We can grow grass here all year ‘round because it’s close to the coast and there’s no clay in the ground so it tends not to get boggy in winter,” Mr Batty said.

“In Mawbanna we were worried about things like plantation forests being close by.”

Grenville farm holds 360 Friesian cattle that are milked twice a day to produce about 30 litres of product.

The milk is processed and distributed by Australasian company Lion Dairy off-site.

“We do [artificial insemination] as much as possible to keep them milking and they are on flat land which helps to keep them fat,” Mr Batty said.

“I don’t work well on an empty stomach and neither do they.”

Mr Batty said being a member of the Yolla Co-op assisted the farm to be more competitive in the dairy market.

He said the family-run farm aims to be as efficient and financially feasible as possible.

“I give credit to those who have developed it since it was open only a few days a week and was quite restricted in what it could sell,” Mr Batty said.

“I buy a lot of small stuff from the co-op, like detergents and machinery, and also grain for the cows.”

Mr Batty’s 536 acre farm is predominantly run by his son, Scotty Batty.

Kindred Organic Farm - Lauran Damen and Henriette Damen

“We give people the opportunity to be healthy,” Kindred Organics farm owner Lauran Damen says.

“It’s up to them whether or not they want to take it.”

Mr Damen and his wife Henriette Damen grow, process and package quinoa, spelt, buckwheat and oat crops.

The couple distributes the products to North-West health food suppliers and interstate businesses.

“About 80 percent goes to the mainland,” Mrs Damen said.

“Most people say they buy it because it’s full of flavour and has less food miles than a product imported from places like South Africa.”

Mr and Mrs Damen moved to Tasmania from Holland in 2001.

Mr Damen said he knew very little about Tasmania before he moved to the North-West Coast.

“20 years ago I didn’t even know that Tasmania existed,” Lauran said.

“There are so many different crops here and when you travel along the road you can see all the different crops people are growing, from blueberries to potatoes and dairy - it’s fantastic!”

Mr and Mrs Damen said they have been members the Yolla Co-op since it’s humble beginnings.

They said the co-op made their work more financially feasible.

“When you buy products from the co-op it’s much easier to be economically feasible and it’s good being part of a group of farmers that you can talk to,” Mr Damen said.

“We remember when the co-op was just a shed but more and more farmers are realising that it’s useful and now it’s grown.”

Kindred farm uses the co-op as a resource for farming equipment, consumables and advice.

The farm produces organic oat bran for a paddock of dairy and beef cattle on-site at the farm.

“The cattle like the bran and they are healthy, which is a good indication that our product is too,” Mrs Damen said.

“Food is one of the biggest variables you face in life and you can increase your good luck by doing the right thing.”

Glen Torrie - David and Perina Kentish

Farming has been a big part of family life for beef farmers David and Perina Kentish and will continue to be for years to come.

After moving to Tasmania from New South Wales, the couple started off a small, family farm at a property called Glen Torrie at Wynyard.

The couple, with the help of their family, breed Black Angus cattle.

Mr Kentish said the Tasmania provided a perfect climate for the Angus cattle.

“It is a very temperate climate and the cows do not have to go very far for a meal, the black Angus do extremely well,” he said.

The Glen Torrie cattle farm adheres to many different programs and groups, people from across the world who purchase the beef, distributed by Greenhams are able to discover where the produce comes.

“We run a never, ever program, which is no antibiotics, no hormone and no grain but all grass fed cattle,” Mr Kentish said.

“We are also part of a group called the Global Animal Partnership and that is all to do with the aesthetics of growing the beef from a calf through to finish and it has been cared for, basically a well fed happy beast.”

“Greenhams have developed market places in America, Japan and Korea for their never, ever produce and certain markets are able to read the barcode on the packaged meet to advise them on where the meet came from, a picture of the farmers and background information on the farm.”

Purchasing equipment and goods from the Yolla Co-op helps continue to the farm’s success, Mr Kentish said they are very supportive,

“They are able to buy produce at a good price so it saves the farmers or the members a lot of money, he said.

“They provide a pretty valuable service, if we go in and say we have heard of this can you get it and then they have days where they bring the sales representatives in from the bigger companies to help promote and educate about products, seed, pasture, fertiliser.”