"We just got creative and went: how can we make the most of this terrible situation?" - Sallie Jones
Sallie Jones, after the summer bushfires, couldn't believe that people would be actively stopped from visiting East Gippsland. She exclaims: "It's ludicrous! It's ridiculous! Of course we want people to come! Of course we're not going to tell people not to come to East Gippsland. But then, literally, it was like a week or two later that we're in lockdown."
Her dairy farm lost about 25% of its business overnight when cafes and restaurants cancelled their milk orders. She had been also trying to open a milk processing factory. The authorities who needed to sign off on the project had been directed not to go into a bushfire zone. Then the lockdown happened and they were delayed further, paying huge interest on their loans. Sallie says: "We jumped on the back of home delivery services, we collaborated with local producers. We just got creative and went: how can we make the most of this terrible situation?"
She realised that selling her product in cafes wasn't enough, she needed to get her milk into people's homes. Her social media network assisted her immensely in this, as did customer's awareness of local producers and buying direct. Sallie says: "So having our own channel essentially has been awesome. People have turned around wanting to support Australian manufacturing and Australian owned now . It's actually sort of raised a lot of awareness, I think, with COVID. Let's look after ourselves. Let's look after our own country now. So it's sort of been a positive to be honest."
Sallie had also run the Warragul Farmers Market for the past six years but quickly needed to adapt the market to the new COVID-19 restrictions. Using agricultural fencing and animal ear tags as deli-style numbers for crowd control, she "felt like we were running a nightclub!"
But she missed the connection and conversations with customers. Sallie explains: "Using social media once again to tell those messages of: Right guys, come, buy, and leave. And it's quite a different thing for me because I'm all about let's chat and connect and all that." Not being able to offer samples was also a big change. She had to ask her customers to buy her products without tasting them.
But she still had people coming to her and wanting to talk, one even offered to invest in her company during this time. She found that Australians really wanted to support their local producers.
Foreign workers trapped in Australia asked Sallie for employment. However the COVID-19 restrictions on accommodation meant it didn't work out, she couldn't provide the required social distancing on her farm: "They were desperate and I was: Ah, man, I really want to bring you in and try and help you but yeah it just couldn't work."
Sallie found that the physical distance of her farm that sometimes inhibited her from having business meetings in Melbourne or Sydney could now be overcome via video calls. It was now a more "level playing field". Sallie says: "It's more socially accepted these days which is super cool for us because it takes out that geographic distances."
She's discovered that despite the challenges of earning a living on the land during a pandemic there has been some silver linings.