“I put it a call out on Facebook, saying “Who wants lamb?” – and it was all sold out in 10 minutes.”
I am an Advancement Researcher at the University of Melbourne. I work remotely, from our farm in South Gippsland, which allows me to concurrently run our organic grass-fed meat business, Colin and Sally’s Organic Lamb and Beef.
I’m also a mum to two little boys, 2 and 4 years old. My husband Colin is a stay-at-home dad and farmer, and I couldn’t do what I do without him.
My first job was in a fruit and veggie store in Kew, whilst I was doing my arts degree in Melbourne Uni. It was an amazing job. I worked there for three years and I truly learned what it meant to work.
I got to do everything: working the cash registers, arranging the stalls, cleaning, packing. The store supplied a lot of high-end restaurants, so I also got to do things like weigh truffles from Umbria. It was a very fast-paced and intense environment. Everything had to be done to the utmost standard.
But the time came to move on, and I went on to shift-manage another store – a really cool fish shop called Bottom of the Harbour. That was also great, we had amazing camaraderie. A lot of us were in our early 20’s, so it wasn’t unusual to do 12-hour shifts cutting fish after being out all night!
After the honours year of my arts degree, I thought I wanted to continue on to academia, so I started a PhD in history.
My supervisor offered me a research position working for the Encyclopaedia of Melbourne. I wrote some entries for the print version, and worked on the online version: mapping it out, writing entries, finding images.
Then, while still doing the PhD, I joined the university’s Disability Liaison Unit. I started part time but it soon became a full time job. It was my responsibility to help students with disabilities navigate university life: anything from getting around, to taking lecture notes for visually impaired students, transcribing lectures into text that could be read out by computer software. It was an amazing experience.
I never finished my PhD, it was actually a bit of a disaster. Life and work got in the way, and I kept getting distracted from it time and time again.
I persisted for six years, but eventually had to admit to myself that I didn’t have it in me: I must admit, it was a huge relief to finally close that chapter.
Eight years ago, I applied for the role of Advancement Researcher that I saw whilst browing the university careers site. I went through the formal interview process and was accepted to the position, which I’ve been doing since. I wasn’t even really looking for a job – it just lept out at me.
I work in the philanthropic arm of the University. In my role, I am involved in facilitating private funding and donations to the university.
It is a pretty varied role and I really enjoy it. The university really looks after its staff and I have a great group of people around me.
Just before getting this job, I married Colin. We got married pretty quickly, within six months of dating: we both knew we were right for each other. Farming was Colin’s dream, but it appealed to me from the start, even though I had no farming experience whatsover! I was looking for a change and certainly found it.
photo: Sarah Porter @ Amelle Photography
Colin was a teacher, but he already had the land in Dollar, a tiny place in South Gippsland, and wanted to get started straight away.
It was just land – no house, electricity or shedding. With the help of a small inheritance, wedding presents and some money from Colin’s family, we were eventually able to build a house and buy our first flock of sheep. And we just grew from there.
Our whole business plan hinged on me working full time at the university, so that Colin could quit teaching and work on the farm, and once the kids came along, also look after them.
At first I commuted, but eventually I was able to convince the university to let me work from home. It wasn’t easy: I had to build a lot of trust with them to demonstrate that I could do the work unsupervised. But it has worked out great.
At first we thought we’d go the traditional route, selling meat to the general market. But then the lamb prices went down. It was not viable to send our sheep to markets at less than fifty dollars. And we thought – we have high quality organic lamb, there must be a demand for this out there.
I put it a call out on Facebook, saying “Who wants lamb?” – and it was all sold out in 10 minutes.
From there, it was a huge learning curve: I did a lot research, talking to butchers, industry officials to learn the industry rules and laws: how to safely transport meat, what vehicles to use, laws surrounding payment and sales.
photo: Sarah Porter @ Amelle Photography
The customers loved our lamb. So we leased more farm land, bought cows and added beef to our business. We’ve been running it since late 2013.
My son Patrick was born in October 2013 and I actually took our first beef sale with him on the breast!
To get the word of our business out there, I started a Facebook business page and it just exploded. I had hundreds of messages from people wanting lamb and beef, more than we could supply.
Facebook also facilitated me getting in touch with other businesses who sell direct to customers – interestingly, I found it’s mostly women selling in this way. I speak to these amazing women frequently about how they organize the process and how we can help each other, so it’s a great and supportive community to be a part of.
I combine running the business with my university job. I work full-time – from 8:45 until 5. I can often do something business-related during lunch hour. And then I spend a great deal of time on the computer after work, connecting with customers, collecting orders, especially around drop-off times which we do about once every two weeks.
We created eight drop-off points. It’s where we park the van and people pick up their meat.
It’s all pre-purchased, which is very important because we don’t have a vending license.
Before the drop-off Colin rounds up sheep based on weight. Our sheep are a particular breed called Wiltipoll. They shed their wool rather than grow it, which allows their energy to go into meat production. Colin then drives them in to be processed at the abattoir, and the abattoir then delivers it to our butcher.
I take a day off from work before the drop-offs to go to the butcher and oversee the packing of the meat. It’s just a matter of supervising and answering tricky questions, because I know how every customer wants their meat cut up.
This is also where vacuum packing and labelling happens. Then the meat is ready to be picked up and it goes in the Primesafe vehicle which we drive to a drop-off point.
It’s amazing, but it is also a serious amount of work. This business is all about the product quality, but I know other organic farmers that don’t sell nearly that well.
We sell out in the matter of hours, thanks to our marketing.
As business partners, we play to our strengths. Colin’s strengths are farming, planning, business plans and projections, while I run the customer-related marketing side of the business.
Marketing comes in a number of angles. Organic and grass-fed meats need no introduction among those who buy ethically sourced products. Buying from a family, not a corporation, gives people a sense of power. People love buying from a farmer that they can get to know.
It’s the traditional way of doing business. I love doing drop-offs and meeting customers, getting their feedback.
I learned that you need to make customers your champions. If my customer has a business and posts something on Fabebook, I make sure to share it to my audience as well. When people post on our page, I never just hit the Like button: even if I’m up till early am replying to comments, I always take the time to reply, use the customer’s name, think about what I’m saying.
I think this personal approach has paid off: I have about 6000 followers on my Facebook page and a mailing list of about 2500. I’m contacted at least 10 times a day, with enquiries, orders or just positive comments.
Facebook is a huge driver for our business, which I appreciate, but for me it also makes me feel part of a greater community and alleviates some of the loneliness you can feel on a farm.
We’ve had some hard lessons. For instance, when we first started making sausages, we were using a mix that the butcher told us was additive-free. But the producer was hiding behind the 5% law, whereby something that makes up less than 5% of the product doesn’t have to be listed.
I grew up being very sensitive to MSG. We call it the divorce maker: I pick fights, I have cold sweats, bad dreams, asthma attacks.
So when I was getting these reactions from our sausages, I knew we couldn’t keep selling them.
I got in touch with Tammi Jonas from Jonai farms. She couldn’t find anyone to process her pigs, so she learned to butcher herself. I spent a day with her butchering and making sausages, and it gave me the confidence to come up with my own recipe and convince our butcher to get on board.
We use rosemary, Himalayan salt, local raw honey and an amazing smoked salt; there’s no fillers or preservatives. They are a huge hit with our customers.
I like the variety and flexibility that I have now. I am keenly aware of how lucky I am to be able to see my family at 1 minute past 5pm.
If we were living in the suburbs in Melbourne, I wouldn’t be home until after 6. I feel that it is a great privilege that I have been able to make this work.
Toddlers can be terribly difficult, but I’ve got the most supportive marriage. Colin is eternally optimistic, capable and loving, not to mention an incredibly hard working farmer.
Working and running a business also keeps me sane as a mother: I love my children terribly, but I could not cope not having anything else to do other than parenting: I need a grown up life and challenges.
If we hadn’t moved out to the farm, my uni career might have been different, I may have progressed up the ranks. But due to my working arrangements, there is no opportunity for advancement, as I’m not on campus. That’s OK: I really enjoy what I do and have no intention of leaving. Maybe, in 4-5 years, as the farm grows, I may go to working fewer days a week.
The perception and the reality of an organic farm business are very different things; it’s like taking an Instagram picture of your kid making a cookie and actually making the cookie.
The reality sometimes is stressful – running around, having to shoot an old animal, chasing cattle out of someone else’s yard. I’m lucky I don’t do much of it, it falls on Colin’s shoulders.
There’s no downtime at the farm, and it’s something we’ll need to address as the kids get older. At the moment, we take the children with us to do the drop-offs. I try to pick locations where there are other kids and a secure space for them to play.
The kids are fine with it now, but I know they will want to start doing something else on the weekends when they are older.
It would be great to expand the farm. But an organic farmer can only expand on organic land, that’s the limit. So it’s not that simple.
We are also thinking about pigs, but I don’t think we’re ready until the children are at school. Pigs are labour-intensive, and they can’t be grass-fed. We haven’t figured out yet how to make it work as a financially viable product and at the same time feel comfortable with putting it under our brand. We’ll stick with what we’re doing for now.
Looking back, I think I should have had the guts to quit the PhD earlier. I’m a finisher of things generally. I like to achieve what I set out to do. I thought I wanted to be an academic, so I persisted with it, even though I probably already knew that it wasn’t for me.
I think sometimes you need a bit of maturity and strength that comes with it, to allow yourself to walk away from something like that.
Putting things into perspective, I’m kind of leading the perfect life; it even makes me feel a bit guilty. The farm and building the business have given me confidence. I would advise people to be more confident earlier on, but that is hindsight – we all need to have the life experience and acquire the tools with which to put ourselves forward.