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“Pretty scary stuff”: Bega Cheese chairman recounts damage from bushfires

A downpour of rain across the east coast has come as a welcome break in an unprecedented fire season that has caused significant, and in some cases irreparable, damage to Australian agricultural, food and wine businesses.

As businesses grapple to get back on their feet, many are still recounting the damage to property and supplies. Australian dairy company Bega Cheese is one of the major FMCG businesses that was caught up in the NSW fires, which raged through the towns of Bega and Cobargo on New Year’s Eve.

The dairy company operates two sites at Bega, a milk receival and bulk cheese production facility as well as a cheese cutting and processing facility.

Acting chairman of Bega Cheese Max Roberts told Inside FMCG that while the fire had “quite a minimal impact” on the company’s factory facilities, it has had a devastating impact on many of its suppliers and employees.

“I’m not sure it’s recognized as to just how traumatic an experience it was,” Roberts told Inside FMCG. “Not just the fire, but the uncertainty and then the darkness for almost two days with the heavy ash that was in the sky. It was pretty scary stuff.”

“A number of our suppliers were severely impacted, with pastures burned out and loss of fences. Fortunately, there was no loss of dairies or dairy herds.”

A Bega Cheese Crisis Management team along with a significant number of volunteers have been working with farmers to provide generators, feed, fencing and other assistance to repair farms and keep milk flowing.

“One of the first challenges we had was actually getting those dairy operations up and running again because cows had to be milked, otherwise, you do lose production.”

Roberts said the priority was “to get to them, then get hay to them, and then get power to them by way of generators”.

Most cows were milked relatively shortly after the fires but there were some farmers that couldn’t milk cows for up to 50 hours.

“A lot of that milk couldn’t be cooled so it had to be dumped. We estimate about 900,000 litres was dumped on the farm,” Roberts said.

“When you think about it, we’ve got a milk pool of just over a billion litres, so it’s less than 1 per cent of our milk intake.”

Two suppliers decided to dry their herds off earlier than planned due to the fires, which may reduce Bega’s milk supply by up to a further one million litres. However Bega said these milk losses will have no “material overall impact on Bega’s operations”.

Fortunately, Bega has processing capability in other parts of Australia that it can lean on in difficult circumstances like this.

“We’re more than confident we won’t have any out of stocks or products we cant supply,” Roberts said.

The business has relied on massive generators to drive the dairy plants, cool the milk and generate hot water for washing down. But Roberts said things are slowly starting to return to normal.

“It’s as normal as it can be,” Roberts said.

“The big thing at the moment is the immediate things getting permanent power restored to replace those generators. That’s going to take a huge effort by the power companies. Many hundreds of poles have just been burned off at the ground and infrastructure damaged in substations and so on.

“The other big loss in the farming community is fences. Many hundreds of kilometers of fences have simply been burned. And that means it’s difficult to manage cattle and livestock.”

The primary focus for Bega Cheese is the well being of its employees and suppliers.

“I think it’s all about protecting the people, because it’s the people that you rely on to work the machines and have the whole place moving. We’re very, very conscious of that to make sure that people are given that capability to make judgments based on their family and their situations. And that’ll be the case now for some weeks if not months ahead.”

So what’s the general feeling in Bega right now?

“It’s a positive feeling, in that, it’s got communities together and neighbours working together and there’s been an enormous upsurge of support coming in from other parts of Australia,” Roberts said.

“So that sort of lifts the spirits, but there will be some that will really struggle.”

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