Celebrating the dairy co-operative's 115th year in Lismore are (from left) Andrew Burns, Cam Hogan, Brett Kelly, Darren Wallison and Greg McNamara.
Celebrating the dairy co-operative's 115th year in Lismore are (from left) Andrew Burns, Cam Hogan, Brett Kelly, Darren Wallison and Greg McNamara. Jacklyn Wagner

Norco's 115 years in dairying

AFTER operating as the dairy co-operative of the Northern Rivers and beyond for 115 years, Norco has good reason to celebrate.

Chairman Greg McNamara said the Norco of today was immensely different to that first small co-operative of dairy farmers.

“First they made butter, and later moved into ice-cream, fresh milk, cheese and rural retailing,” he said.

“We became very much part of the regional community.”

Proving it still has an important role to play, Norco has celebrated its 115th year with cake and plenty of bargains for those on the land.

“We've had cakes on-site in our rural retail stores, and we're having celebratory sales all month,” Mr McNamara said.

Norco chief executive officer Brett Kelly said the Lismore-based co-operative had carefully planned and developed its diversification into other businesses that were suited to its business units and supplier membership.

“Norco has developed and evolved over many years into a significant and iconic brand recognised firstly as a core milk supply business that is farmer-owned and controlled,” he said.

“We are all very proud and honoured to be working for an iconic co-operative such as Norco.”

Norco has weathered many significant changes in the dairy industry, and in the agricultural sector as a whole.

“Norco has survived the threats of deregulation, amalgamations, Y2K, natural disasters, the Global Financial Crisis and even some commercial strategies that have not always gone to plan,” Mr McNamara said.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Norco was the 1998 deregulation of the nation's dairy industry.

“The first stage was deregulation of the retail sector in 1998, and two years later deregulation at the farm gate and Norco losing access to the Sydney market,” Mr McNamara said.

“The deregulation of farm gate milk prices and an extended dry period saw average farmer returns on milk fall below the cost of production for a number of years.”

This caused Norco's local milk supply to fall sharply.

Mr McNamara said the co-operative then had to seek additional suppliers from Kilcoy, Toowoomba and Warwick in Queensland, and Taree and the Hunter region in NSW.

Changes in demand and supply for dairy products have also had an impact on the company.

“Sadly, Norco ceased the manufacture of butter in 1997 to concentrate its resources on the expansion of its ice-cream business in Lismore,” Mr McNamara said.

“Similarly, the production of cheese ceased in 2001 due to falling farmer numbers, which made the production of cheese unviable.

“But due to the strength of our Nimbin cheese brand, Norco outsourced the production of the brand.”

Despite continuing challenges, such as high debt, the co-operative is determined to survive and prosper, and now employs 620 staff and exports across the world.

“Norco's history and ability to endure and evolve over 115 years in an ever-changing and sometimes volatile market is nothing short of amazing,” Mr Kelly said.

“This is a credit to the hard work, passion, focus and ongoing loyalty of all our stakeholders.”

Mr McNamara agreed.

“We're still ensuring milk arrives on everyone's tables. I think our forebears would be pleased.”



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