Bottling and labeling machinery worth hundreds of thousands of dollars has just arrived from the United States and is waiting to be installed at the historic ABC Cheese Factory on Bate Street, Central Tilba.
The site has been a hub for the local dairy industry since 1891 but under the ownership of Nic and Erica Dibden new life and opportunity has been injected into the building, the industry, and the community.
Another chapter is unfolding.
Building on the success they’d had at a smaller site in Bodalla over the six years prior, in 2012 Nic and Erica set out to expand their mostly cheese and yogurt business on the Tilba site using milk from their Jersey herd down the road.
However the buzz around their fresh, unhomogenised, cream on the top, Jersey milk has flipped the equation, 80% of the business is now milk.
“When we first set up the Tilba factory we put in a very small, very labour intensive milk filling machine which requires five or six people to stand around filling, capping, and carting milk,” Nic explains.
“That has worked fine, but our sales have continued to grow, this new machine will fill, cap, and label one bottle each second, with two to three staff.”
Between the factory and their lush farm, 22 people are employed and Nic believes more jobs will be created.
The new bottling machine will activate a different part of the factory, freeing up space for increased cheese production.
“Staff that have been bottling milk will move across to cheese, in fact we might need more staff,” Nic says.
A relationship with Woolworths has also been building. The supermarket giant has stocked Tilba Milk at its Bermagui outlet for the last two years, but in recent weeks the Dibdens have started supplying the Narooma and Bega supermarkets as well.
Butcher shops, small independent supermarkets, cafes, fruit shops, and delis have been the only go to place for Tilba Milk customers up until now.
“We supply about 200 stores from Eden to Nowra, and then Bowral, Mittagong, and into Canberra,” Nic says.
“60% of our business is in Canberra.
“We’ve never really gone out chasing stores, it has been consumer driven, consumers go in and ask stores to stock our products,” he says.
The new deal with Woolies was a long time in the making and adds an extra 1000 litres of milk each week to the business.
Nic says Woolies approached them and have been great to deal with.
“Woolworths like everybody else that sells food, wants safe food. So although we are audited by NSW Safe Foods, Woolies have their own independent auditing system which we had to pass, and that takes time,” he says.
The door is open for further growth with Woolworths but sustainable, manageable growth is important to the way the Dibdens approach their business.
“We have no intention of trying to conquer the world, we want to continue to produce a very good product and look after our staff and look after our community,” Nic says.
The financial security that comes with supplying a business like Woolworths is a key part of the Dibden’s drive but they are also mindful of the existing commercial arrangements that have been apart of their development.
“When we go into new stores we have tended to get new customers, it has made very little difference to existing suppliers in the same town, they have their loyal customers who support them,” Nic says.
“In any town that we go into we have a non-exclusive supply arrangement, for us to supply to one store in one town is uneconomic.”
In doing a deal with Woolworths, the Dibdens had to consider the controversy around $1 a litre supermarket milk.
“We have always gone into our stores at the price point that we are at, with no thought of competing against dollar milk,” Nic says.
“Dollar milk is a disaster for the dairy industry ultimately and you get what you pay for, dollar milk has been stripped, but I fully understand people buying dollar milk.
“But if you want to buy our milk it will be at the correct price point, that’s the way we operate,” he says.
Most of the core ingredient at the centre of the Tilba Real Dairy business comes from a Jersey herd approaching 300 at the Dibden’s farm, which sits in the shadow of Gulaga on the Princes Highway.
“We continuously grow our cow numbers to stay ahead of the production curve, but at some point we will have to take on more farms if we want to grow the business,” Nic explains.
“I am very much hoping we can find people who might start up a new operation, it has to be 100% Jersey milk of course, that is our brand.”
With spring creeping into the air and the busy tourist season approaching Nic is hoping specialist technicians from New Zealand will have the new bottling and labeling machines installed and working at the factory in the coming weeks.
“This has been a steep learning curve,” Nic says with a smile.
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