Farmer, mother, business woman, entrepreneur, PR maven, daughter – Sallie Jones, co-founder of Australia’s milk brand Gippsland Jersey, is all these and so much more. Her life story proves that the power to affect change is always within reach--you just need to grasp it. Trust me when I say that Gippsland Jersey’s Instagram always brings a smile to my face with its positivity and encouragement. Read on to learn how she did this in the midst of tragedy, how she daily tackles mental health, and how she forged one community after another, all in an effort to improve the lives of her fellow farmers back home in Australia.
First, let’s start with some basics. What is your official job title, if you have one?
Co-Founder of Gippsland Jersey. Mother of three.
The story of your brand is closely tied to your personal life—can you tell me about it?
I was born on an organic dairy farm in Lakes Entrance, which is in Gippsland [in Australia], about 2 ½ hours from where I live now. My Dad was working off farm to supplement our family income when we were small children, so often my Mum and my Nana were left to milk cows and run this farm while my Dad and my Pop went off for two weeks at a time to work on the oil rigs. I learned from a very young age that women are capable and can do anything men can. It was a very unique opportunity.
I didn’t go to school until grade six because we were homeschooled. I learned a lot of very valuable life lessons, not so much academic. I was the eldest of four children, and I was cooking meals, doing the washing, taking ownership in the house, and having adult responsibilities. My brother has autism, it’s very disruptive to our family, so there was no option but to grow up and learn a very good work ethic from a young age. It was probably in about year ten that I found out you [can] put your mind to something and then set about a way of getting towards the goal. I decided I wanted to become school captain, and I did. I think I’m a natural born leader, but having that validation of your peers and your teachers voting you in as the leader of the school was a pretty awesome thing.
I ended up studying public relations. I didn’t even know what that was [but as] part of that course I had to do work experience. I was very privileged to work in a Melbourne boutique agency where we had some fantastic clients. I got involved in Mark McAfnee from California, he has a big raw milk company. I went to a meeting, and I was the only person there that had access to organic Jersey milk. They all said, “Yes, yes go home, start a brand, we’ll support you!” So I quit my job, which I loved, [and] started up a brand called Aphrodite Bath Milk, sold as cosmetic because you can’t sell [raw milk] for human consumption. In the meantime I’d also married a guy from the city, so I chose to support my husband and we moved a bit closer to Melbourne, for his work.
Then I fell pregnant with my baby, and I was in a mum’s group and I said, “Hey, who wants to starts a farmer’s market with me?” and one mum put up her hand and said “Yup, let’s do it.” I’m so proud of the farmer’s market because it brings the community together, it celebrates the food bowl that we live in, and it gives farmer’s a platform in our community to showcase what they grow because often farmers are invisible. My Dad ended up leasing the farm, selling the business, and [moving] off the farm. But because farmers are so busy and they put their identity in what they do, he was like a ship without a rudder. And we didn’t know at the time, but he was suffering from mental health and depression and a whole lot of stuff. He’s a big tower of strength, he’s like the human ox. His hand would swallow your hand up, he was so gentle, courageous, opinionated. Very sadly, he took his own life just over a year ago. And on that particular day my life changed.
I [had] this incredible tingling feeling of just, “I have to do something good out of this, because this is really just a shit situation.” We should never get to this stage where men, especially, can’t talk about their mental health because of pride or what people think about them. Life went on, and with another mum from my mum’s group I started up a little PR/marketing consulting firm. A job came through and I had to deliver the social media for a local event, [and there] I bumped into Steve Ronalds, who, ironically, looks so much like my Dad and reminds me of him. We’d known each other for years because of being in that dairy space. Steve was in the situation of my Dad in the early 80s, which is he was working off farm to supplement his income. And he said, “Why don’t we do an honor project to your dad and bottle my milk?” And I said, “It’s not the right time for me, because I’m in this grief—just let me be.”
Then the milk crisis happened. Australia had a milk crisis where the milk companies basically announced, “Actually, we’ve been paying you guys too much money, and you need to pay us back.” It was so wrong, and it would never ever happen in any other industry, but farmers are powerless. So they had to. Steve lost $80,000 on that one day. So, all these farmers are under massive financial stress. Through the farmer’s market and my role in it, we got inundated through social media with consumers saying, “What milk can we buy, locally, that is going to benefit farmers?”
And the answer is, “There is none.” So we had a panel where farmers came and spoke about what the dairy crisis meant for them financially, personally, mentally. The support was crazy. People showed up with gifts and said, “We’re happy to do whatever!” I sent Steve a text message after that event and said, “This is so wrong. You’re right. Let’s create a brand that’s 100% supporting dairy farmers. People pay more for a bottle of water than milk, so something’s gotta change.” He said, “Yep, ok, let’s do it.”
A national TV channel got news that we were going to start a brand after I posted a photo of my little boy on Facebook. The reach was pretty crazy: to get 2,500 shares in a little rural town… We couldn’t not make this happen now. We did it in three months. We launched at the farmer’s market in September. We thought we might sell 5,000 liters a month but we ended up selling 1,800 liters in just that one day.
This is all milk that’s sourced from local farmers?
Just Steve’s farm for the moment, cause his farm actually produces 2.3 million liters of milk a year. We relied on our friends, our community to spread the word for us. Instead of us going out and pounding the pavement, everyone came to us and said, “We’ll stock your milk!” We had so much support form our region, it’s just crazy, crazy, crazy. Our brand stands for three things, and they’re the backbone of everything we do.
1. Fair price for farmer.
2. Mental health.
We put money aside to do Random Acts of Kindness for the farmers in our region. Often it’s just the smallest, the glimmer of hope that people need, to change their perspective on life. We’ll pay for a relief milker to come in so [the farmers] can get off the farm and do something. For example, I heard about a lady, a dairy farmer, who can’t afford to spend the $140 dollars to go and get her haircut and colored. So I called her up—and I know she’s had a very rough year, mentally—and I said, “Wendy, we’d love to pay for that haircut.” And she’s just blown away by that.
Eight weeks into our brand we crowdfunded and we raised $32,000 for a milkshake caravan (literally a truck that sells milkshakes--see picture below) . People are so generous. It allows us to get out and about to spread the word and build our brand. For me, I’m not the one getting up and milking cows everyday, but I see myself as a [junction] between farmer and consumer. [We] started from a tragedy, I guess, tragedy and a milk crisis that energized—fueled—our desire to create this with so much passion and meaningfulness that it’s been a real honor. Last week, the governor of Victoria came out. She’d heard about our story because she was sitting at her bench having her Wheaties one morning. She said “I wanna go visit that farm, I want to hear that story.” It’s a really good, positive story. We all can choose how we respond to life’s situations.
What are your main duties are in terms of running Gippsland Jersey?
A lot of it is sales, marketing, social media, delivering on random acts of kindness. It’s varied. Sometimes I’m out delivering milk because a shop hasn’t gotten it’s delivery. It’s being connected to my community, because we’ve been able to collaborate with other businesses on these random acts of kindness. It’s collaborating via the channels of social media.
I spend a lot of time talking. I’ve recently been invited to a number of functions where I can share my story. I’ve got two little kids at school and Maxie is at home with me and I don’t do daycare, so I’ve got a little apprentice. That means I’ve only got the hours between nine and three, so I jam pack as much as I can. But it’s a lot of late nights and early mornings. Lot of meetings. A lot of meetings. Because of the crisis, there’s a political element to what we do, as well. All the politicians want to make themselves look good and say that they’re part of it. I’m very much a commentator in the social media space for continuously telling the story where we can.
You’ve been really good at spreading the word through social media. Why do you think you were so successful with social media?
I think it’s a triple pronged thing. We got perfect timing, my vulnerability to share my story—I’m acutely aware of trying to not be doom and gloom, but sharing my story about what happened with my Dad opened lots of doors, and mental health is quite topical in Australia, especially in rural areas. They’ve started saying, “Too many farmers are suiciding, what’s going on?” It’s also my connectedness to my community. I’ve lived in all parts of my region, of Gippsland. I guess my profile has built a little bit. I can pick up the phone and ring any media agency and they know who I am, and they trust that if I pitch a story to them, they’ll get a good story. Definitively having support has been incredible. And, I guess, being a woman in what is thought of as predominantly a man’s world makes you stand out.
Speaking of your efforts to spread mental health awareness, how have you gone about this in your community in Gippsland?
It’s continuing conversation. A lot of that stuff is done face to face. We’re in contact with a lot of farmers through various things we go to. It takes someone to start the conversation, and I’m happy to. I told Steve, as soon as we were starting our milk brand, I said “We want to partner with The Ripple Effect. They’re the ones that are the academics, who are doing the research into why we’ve got so much rural suicide.” So I’ve been asked to join the National Advisory Council for Mental Health in Australia, so that’s writing policy—well, I’m not writing policy, but I bring an industry perspective. We do random acts of kindness that boost people’s mental health. Also, just trying to share stories that are uplifting but also suggestive that if you’re not [doing] great, don’t be ashamed of speaking out and breaking that stigma.
How has the internet impacted your work in mental health with farmers?
There’s a page set up called Dairy Love, and I think there might be, I don’t know, twenty thousand people in this Facebook group. A lot of dairy farmers are very honest in the group. They’ll put up a photo and they might be covered in cow poo, and they might say “Not feeling the dairy love today.” And they might indicate in that group that, mentally, they’re not ok. A couple of times I’ve actually just picked up the phone and then just [said], “Listen, I get the vibe that you’re not [doing] great, we’d love to do a random act of kindness.” First of all, they’re just like, “Well, thanks for calling. Thanks for caring.” It blows their mind, that someone cares. Then the fight is on your hand because they don’t want to accept whatever it is because they’re too fricking proud! They’re very appreciative. We’re able to send them off to counseling or send them in some sort of right direction. Often, with mental health, people don’t want to talk about it cause it’s uncomfortable. I guess I can use my personal experience and relate to them on that level.
I was wondering whether you could tell me what your least and most favorite part of your job are?
Least is definitively administration. I’m not good at it (laughs). I need someone to come, I’ve just got stuff everywhere. Administration and follow-up, as well. Often stores will write back and say, “Yep, would love to stock your milk,” but then there isn’t enough time in the day for me to follow up on what are potential sale leads, which we ultimately need! So I’m not very good at it. I’d never call myself a pushy saleswoman at all. I had a conversation with Steve earlier that someone can’t pay their bills and Steve said “Pursue them,” and I feel bad! And then I had to remind myself, “We’re a commercial operation, we’re not a charity,” so I also need to get a little more business minded and not so—I guess there’s a balance there. Understanding that if we don’t chase up our bills we can’t do random acts of kindness. So it’s understanding that there’s a flow and effect, that we have to make money for our little world to go around.
What are you best at? Or what do you most love about your job?
Connecting. I naturally love connecting people. I love seeing other people win in life, I love it. I, honestly, love people. So the whole Gippsland Jersey is a win-win-win-win for me: it ticks all the right boxes because I can do what I’m passionate about. And they say that if you’re passionate about what you do, you never work a day in your life. And it’s really true. I hate injustice, so to be in the dairy industry and be making a difference in a positive way, it’s really fulfilling.
What are the skills that have helped you thrive in this business?
Definitively leadership because everyone has an idea, everyone dreams up an idea and thinks, “Oh I could do this, I could do that,” but not many people are happy to step off the cliff and free-fall. It’s finding the right people to surround yourself with, that can be your wings. That’s a strength of mine as well, putting a team together. Finding and building a culture around what we do, and bringing people along for the journey and fostering that’s spirit. I’ve never been good at managing people. I don’t go into the small details, I think big picture. Steve, the other half of Gippsland Jersey can fill in those small details. He is good at the paperwork. But he certainly doesn’t dampen me. As a leader, I’ve realized in the last months, that if you put your head up as a woman, as a leader, be prepared for criticism. Because as a leader, criticism comes your way. And there have been things that have really knocked me.
What’s been one thing you didn’t expect you’d have to do in your role but you actually find yourself doing?
Public speaking! I was so scared of it!
Oh! How did you overcome it?
Well, it’s been a really nice process because obviously I’ve got the support of Steve: he’s really empowered me and given me a lot of strength. And practice—to keep putting myself out of my comfort zone. I’m doing a leadership course, so I’m sort of upskilling. So that’s probably how I’ve had to overcome it. It’s like, “How do you get better at running? You keep putting your shoes on and getting out the door and giving it a crack.” You know, certainly everything I do isn’t perfect, but I’m authentic, I can’t be something I’m not, so it’s accepting who I am and just, “Take me as I am!”
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Oh, you’re finished? Sorry, I got distracted making a list of things I’d like to fix in the world, inspired by Sallie. Her energy and unfailing positive outlook are so infectious that we’re happy that we have one more week with her. Come back next Monday for a breakdown of how to combine leadership and mental health, courtesy of the incredible Sallie Jones.