Milk with a difference

With traditional dairy businesses under pressure it is no surprise that rural communities are rapidly diversifying and becoming home to a wider range of agri-businesses. But camels … in Victoria?

Chris and Megan William’s fascination first started when they saw camels roaming wild on Andado Station in the Northern Territory. Moving to Victoria where drought, rising water costs, and declining income has seen the dairy industry struggle; they brought with them the knowledge that camels survive well in the harshest of climates.

As a newly married couple they wanted to start their own agricultural business but something different. From modest beginnings in 2014 with 3 camels on 100 acres, they founded the Camel Milk Co. Australia near Kyabram and have since expanded their business to over 300 camels on 480 acres.

“We didn’t know for sure if there was a market,” Megan acknowledges, “but it turned out that fresh camel’s milk is highly sought by a large middle-eastern customer base in Australia’s capital cities. In their countries camel milk is a staple. Australia has a huge advantage over other countries because we have disease-free camels. Once you have a recognised brand in Australia then it is trusted overseas as well.”

They currently export to Hong Kong, Singapore and soon Malaysia and Thailand.

Naturally there have been many challenges along the way.

Not able to get finance and taking a “stepping stones” approach turned out to be a huge positive.

“We had to make the money before we could spend it,” explains Chris. “The advantage is that we own everything,” adds Megan. “It’s good to grow into business.”

Initially their camels were mustered and transported from the outback but now they have their own bulls and breeding program.

“We found a fantastic nutritionist who helped us formulate their diet,” says Megan.

When they first advertised for an experienced camel milker it was met with much laughter, but social media and word of mouth got results.

“Doing something niche like we do, they have to have an absolute love of camels and some skills from being around camels,” explains Megan. The result is a very multicultural and transient workforce.

Meeting stringent Australian food production and handling regulations was a necessary requirement. A pasteuriser plant and cool room were installed; however, finding an independent niche distributor took some time.

“We did it ourselves at first,” says Chris, “starting with a Wayco in the back of the car then upgraded to a refrigerated vehicle.”

They now enjoy a five day a week pick up by a local company that provides a valuable service to small producers getting their stock to a Melbourne based distributor.

In addition to fresh camel’s milk, they now have a body product range including, soaps, lip balms, hand creams, body butters, liquid soap. In addition, their freeze-dried powdered milk is in high demand. Research and development continue with a current focus on introducing camel cheese and chocolate products; requiring up to six months of meeting regulations, producing samples, testing markets and designing packaging before they get to point of sale.

Outsourcing some aspects of the business was a decision made early on. A professional is contracted to look after their website and the non-fresh products are packaged offsite.

Despite all the challenges Chris and Megan have no doubt that they are on the right track.

“My dad always says that if you are a farmer you are one of the biggest gamblers in the world,” laughs Megan. “But it is very exciting being our own bosses and doing something different.”.

Kerry Anderson, advocate for rural businesses and communities and author of Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business

This story first appeared in issue 24 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.