A PERTH institution for decades, Brownes Dairy school tours have been reinstated after a hiatus of several years and are more popular than ever.
The tours aim to teach children aged from about 4 to 10 where food comes from and are geared to their school year curriculum.
Sometimes older students up to Year 11 do a slightly different tour with Brownes’ marketing director Natalie Sarich-Dayton focused more on products and marketing.
The school tours program was reinstated half way through last year as part of Brownes’ community engagement for its 130th anniversary.
Since then, according to marketing manager Ivana Peveza, almost 4000 school children have done the tour, which runs at Brownes’ Balcatta factory twice a day on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Everyone involved with the tours is adamant they were reinitiated at the insistence of managing director Tony Girgis.
Often viewed by dairy farmers who dealt with him over supply contracts as the industry’s bogey man because of his focus on the bottom line above all else, Mr Girgis was brought in to turn Brownes around.
He has done that by slashing costs.
From Melbourne and with no previous dairy experience, he raised hackles by killing off an unprofitable cheese line, closing Brownes’ Brunswick factory, downsizing staff numbers, doing more with less raw milk by minimising waste, refusing to pay farmers more for milk and controversially dropping unwanted farmer suppliers last year as they came out of contract.
The school tours – all cost, no profit – were stopped by a previous management well before Mr Girgis arrived at Brownes, but early on trawling through its financial history, he spotted the numbers, asked what they were and said “we should do that“.
He recognised the value – not just in a commercial sense – of teaching future generations about the natural health benefits of drinking milk and eating dairy foods as part of their regular diet.
“I am amazed at the number of children who are under the impression that milk is chocolate brown,” Mr Girgis said.
The anniversary celebrations for WA’s oldest and largest milk processor proved the ideal time to reintroduce the tours – Brownes also recently introduced a range of flavoured milks with no added sugar, just the natural lactose sugar in milk, aimed at children and the health conscious.
A major difference with the new improved tours is children get to hand milk a live cow.
Farmer Damian – alias Damian Foley of Farm To Plate Education and Farmer Damian’s Moobile Farm – brings Jersey the cow with him for tours.
Jersey - no prizes for guessing what breed she is - came out of the dairy herd of one of Brownes’ milk suppliers at Capel.
She now lives on the southern rural fringe of Perth and has been trained by Farmer Damian and partner Jo Granby to accept a halter and be led and to ride to and from the factory in a horse float.
The smart Jersey girl seems to recognise she is on a good wicket compared to her girlfriends back at Capel.
She knows if she stands quietly in a portable yard at the factory she will get a biscuit of hay.
Then, as children line up, if she fidgets a bit Farmer Damian will ask Jo to bring a bucket of pellets, which she much prefers to hay.
For a bucket of pellets Jersey is prepared to stand quiet and square so 50 primary school age children can come into the yard one at a time and, under close supervision by Farmer Damian, squeeze her teats to squirt milk everywhere.
For the five-year-old pre-primary students from Huntingdale Primary School who were at Brownes when Farm Weekly visited recently, milking Jersey was the highlight.
The tour started with Farmer Damian - he has also been involved with the Royal Agricultural Society of WA’s School Incursion Program which aims to teach children where food comes from - talking to the children about milk, the dairy products made from it and their health benefits.
There was a short film, followed by questions from Farmer Damian to ensure the message got through.
A Brownes’ staff member - for Huntingdale Primary it was Candice Symes from sales and administration - demonstrated and explained why factory staff wear protective clothing and then it was off into the factory.
After gazing through the windows of the first-floor viewing area at a bewildering myriad of pipes and conveyors as thousands of plastic milk bottles lined up for the filling carousel and yoghurt tubs dropped into cartons, the next stop was Brownes’ product development kitchen.
Here, tour educator Kristie Sampson reiterated the simple, natural goodness message and handed out unmarked tubs of flavoured yoghurt and strawberry, vanilla bean and banana and honey labels.
The children’s task was to taste each and work out which label went on which tub.
Then it was outside to milk Jersey and collect a bag of Brownes’ product and information to take back to school.
“Most people who live in WA would be aware Brownes used to run school tours for a long, long time - I can remember doing the tour myself as a six-year-old - I’m 51 now - that was back at the old factory in North Perth,” Farmer Damian said.
“I think this program run by Brownes extends across the whole area of where our food comes from.
“The idea is when the teacher gets back in the classroom they can create the conversation of where food comes from and obviously - depending on where they are, what year, the curriculum - the whole farm-to-plate story,” he said.
Farmer Damian spent most of his life as a Westdale sheep farmer - he still has the farm but leases it out - but turned to dairy cows to teach children.
“I’m actually a sheep farmer by trade, but I love dairy because milk is the simplest agricultural product a child can understand,” he said.
“So the child see milk come out of a cow, it’s an instantaneous recognition and they all know dairy foods, they all know what sort of foods come from dairy cows.
“I just think it’s (dairy cow) the best animal to create that conversation with children about where their food comes from.
“It’s obviously a large animal, but an animal most children are endeared too - big eyes, inquisitive nature.”