Little Big Dairy Co is a multi-generational affair

Little Big Dairy Co is a multi-generational affair

On a lush green dairy farm on the banks of the Macquarie River, two generations work hard to bring their unique milk to customers’ doors. Forget mass production – at this dairy, every cow has a name, and every bottle has heart.

When The Little Big Dairy Co launched its first milk range in 2013, the pitch to consumers was simple: to deliver the best tasting, single source milk to as many people as possible. But as every farmer knows, there’s no such thing as simple when it comes to primary production.

This not-so-simple idea was dreamed up by Emma Elliott, who started Little Big Dairy Co. with her husband, Jim, and her family. Its modern milk was born from an old-school idea – one cow, one bottle. What started out as a stand at a local farmers’ markets has grown to 100,000 litres of milk distributed throughout NSW and the ACT each week, all while maintaining that commitment to single source bottling. It’s a remarkable story that proves it’s possible to succeed and stay true to your values.

Little Big Co only produces single-source milk.

The family farm

Emma comes from a long line of dairy farmers. Her parents, Erika and Steve Chesworth, bought their first farm in the 1990s and from the start it was a family affair. “Dairy farming is all encompassing,” says Emma. “As children my brothers and I would be part of the action every day: on the back of a motor bike with Dad, feeding calves with mum, hosing out the dairy and washing buckets. When my younger brother Duncan and I were 10 and 12 we were actually rostered on for milkings!”

After owning and leasing properties around the state, her parents purchased Glen Isla in 2004. The 971-hectare property sits 17 kilometres west of Dubbo on the banks of the Macquarie River and would eventually become the home of The Little Big Dairy Co.

“As a dairy farmer’s daughter, I was raised on political turmoil. I recall the heartache of quota redistributions and the Kerin plans,” says Erika. “As a dairy farmer’s wife, I have lived through deregulation, increasing regulation in all facets of the farming business, and shrinking returns over time.”

When Emma finished university and returned to the farm in 2012, it was to face a new set of challenges.

“It was such a depressing time for the industry,” she says. “It was a time when any milk produced over your contracted volume was only worth about 10 cents per litre.”

It didn’t matter. “The thing I love the most is to be with my family. Even though I don’t possess the ‘cow brain’ that my Dad and brother do (the ability to recognise cows by sight and recite their pedigree) I do love working alongside them,” Emma says. “To be at home making plans to find room to stay in the family business was really what my heart desired.”

Emma’s parents, and her kids, help to run the business.

So, Emma got to work. “My school friends will tell you that I spoke of bottling our family’s milk,” she laughs. “But I don’t remember.” The timing was right for a big idea. Her brother Duncan was approaching the end of his trade apprenticeship and had also always dreamed of returning to the family farm. Emma’s partner (and soon-to-be-husband) Jim was a builder. The plan for an on-farm milk processing factory was born.

Her parents were on board right away. “Both Steve and I are beneficiaries of dairy families, committed to supporting each other no matter how the next generation does it or where they do it. Our children always knew we were holding on for them,” says Erika. “We were always conscious of being in a position to make the same opportunities available to our children that we had. Therefore, when the conversation started about establishing The Little Big Dairy Co, we were open and ready.”

Milk that matters

Little Big’s state-of-the-art dairy is a 28-a-side Boumatic rapid exit equipped with electronic milk metering and full herd health monitoring through real time technologies. It’s this technology that allows the team to trace each bottle of milk back to an individual cow, something that had never been done before on such a scale. Every drop comes from their herd of 800 Holsteins, born and raised on the farm. The bottling factory is just one kilometre down the road, so the first time milk leaves the farm, it’s in a Little Big bottle and bound for a supermarket or café.

The health and welfare of the cows is at the centre of everything. Regenerative farming practices and scientifically proven methods ensure the cows live longer, have more lactations and achieve higher milk production. Three herds are rotated with different milking schedules to protect udder health and provide constant supervision. Sustainability is built into the brand, with effluent wastewater re-used in paddocks, solar panels, landscape regeneration and much more.

Every drop of milk comes from the same herd of cows, born and raised on the farm.

And Emma’s not done yet. “We also have some big dreams for on-farm infrastructure,” she says, “enabling our cows to have improved living conditions out of the harsh weather extremes, with better access to high quality nutrition, reduced stress and improved cow comfort.”

Integrity in every bottle

“At one time we were laughed at for trying to build value in the dairy industry,” says Emma. “So I’m really proud that we have succeeded in leading the value proposition for premium Australian milk. It’s our belief that single source milk shouldn’t be reserved for the lucky few, but readily available supporting the local economy in which it was made.”

Over the past decade, the team has worked hard to ensure they sell for a price that is fair and sustainable. That means finding the right partners and customers for their milk. “But even now 10 years on, it’s a weekly challenge,” Emma says. “People tell us our product is too expensive, that milk is milk, and that people don’t want to pay for milk. We know this isn’t true for everyone. We say that we don’t compete on quality so we can’t compete on price. We are committed to our customers and our high quality, high value products.”

Today, the award-winning Little Big Dairy Co range includes five types of milk plus three flavoured milks and cream. Next up is butter, launching this year. There are two other exciting milk products in the works: a lactose-free and gluten-free flavoured milk line and a milk suitable for making coffee that has a focus on immune support.

Little big love

When asked about the best part of building Little Big from the ground up, Emma doesn’t hesitate. “The absolute best part – and the absolute privilege – has been to grow a team and a company with Jim. He was always very passionate about company culture and his beloved systems,” she says. “My boarding school friends would tease me by saying that all I wanted to do was to marry a farmer and be a wife. But to me that means being part of a team that works together to achieve a dream – preferably outside some of the time. I was blessed to see that be a reality when I married my husband Jim, although a builder not a farmer.” (Tragically, Jim passed away following an accident in late 2021.)

Emma credits her strong Christian faith for helping her overcome difficulties and giving her the strength to hold on to the dream. “The prayer is always to keep working towards something until we are given a roadblock,” she says. “There were plenty of roadblocks, but they were overcome in miraculous ways. It was meant to be.”

The next generation of Little Big is already part of the family business. Emma and Jim’s sons Xavier, 8, and Wilfred, 5, both want to be dairy farmers when they grow up. Xavier enjoys riding on the tractor, feeding the calves and going out with Poppo (grandfather Steve). Wilfred likes to do jobs for his mum.

“I do hope the boys will continue with it,” says Emma. “I think somewhere along the way we learned that we should make our kids try to choose a more professional job and turn away from agriculture because it’s such a hard slog. But then I see the way Xavier and Wilfred play farmers, pretending to chase cows on their pushbikes, putting up fences made of bailing twine in the house yard, and studying the tractor magazines. I really want to encourage them to pursue this love of farm life they have and work as hard as I can with what’s in front of me to ensure it’s an option for them.”

Erika has no expectations for any of her five grandchildren to continue on at Glen Isla. But if they do, she hopes they’ve learned lessons from those who have come before. “I would expect once the decision to commit has been made, they would stick with it and ride the highs and the lows,” she says. “It is important to know the long-term objectives both personally and professionally, and understand the trajectory to achieving the goals isn’t a straight line upward!”

Ten years on, Emma still feels a thrill every time she sees someone drinking a coffee made from Little Big milk, or spots a bottle in a stranger’s trolley. The Little Big Dairy Co remains firmly a family-owned business, supported by a passionate team, and continues to grow each year.

“There have been so many lessons,” Emma says. “But I’ll never stop learning. Nor do I want to.”

To learn about an innovative Australian camel milk farm, click here.

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