Ice cream. That’s how Sallie Jones, one half of Gippsland Jersey, parses memories of growing up in idyllic Lakes Entrance, in East Gippsland, Victoria, before her dad, the dairy farmer Michael Bowen, tragically took his own life in 2016. “He’d flick a big chunk of freshly churned ice cream onto the back of your hand,” she recalls. “Ice cream on tap…. It was the childhood that children could only dream of.”
One of four kids, Jones was raised among milking cows, a third-generation dairy farmer in training. After briefly living in Melbourne, where she worked in public relations, she founded Aphrodite Bath Milk with her dad, selling organic raw milk for cosmetic use and preparing, unknowingly, to step out of his shadow and into his shoes. Her father’s three-year battle with depression, suffered largely in silence, followed. His untimely passing coincided with a national dairy crisis that saw thousands of farmers spiral into debt — and jolted Jones to lead the region’s about-face.
A chance conversation with the farmer Steve Ronalds at the Warragul Farmers Market, which Jones also co-founded, inspired the pair to create a dairy company with a difference. Within months of Bowen’s death, Gippsland Jersey was bottled. “I remember having this amazing belief and knowing I will turn this into something good,” Jones, now 41, reflects of channelling her grief into an opportunity for healing. “That his life, there isn’t a ‘full stop’ after Michael Bowen.” She takes solace in carrying on his legacy, creating “many of the things he wanted to achieve”.
The company, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in September, has a threefold mission: ensuring fair pay for farmers; quashing the stigma attached to mental health prob- lems; and performing random acts of kindness. A calendar the company produces weaves these strands together, spotlighting the experiences of 12 dairy farmers to normalise conversations about mental health. Their stories paint a bleak picture: the region has been devastated by drought, pay cuts, bushfires, floods and the pandemic. It’s vital their voices are heard.
“Mental health is a pandemic in our country, especially in more remote areas involved in agriculture, because it’s very blokey and there’s a lot of ego,” Jones says. As a woman at the helm, she’s bent on dismantling cultural old-think. “It’s the bravest thing for a man to be honest with how he’s at and to be able to speak freely.”
Jones says premium milk is a conduit for meaningful action. Gippsland Jersey’s products have the seal of approval from Melbourne’s finest dining establishments, including Attica and Vue de Monde, but measurable impact within the community is sine qua non. “If we can use our business as a platform to help others along the way, that’s what gives us ultimate joy,” she says. She has witnessed the power of community firsthand: when a milk processor suddenly cut ties with the business, giving Jones one month to find an alternative dairy plant, Gippsland Jersey raised $110,000 in three weeks, with customers pre-pur- chasing bottles of milk. Their support proved to Jones a steadfast loyalty to the local industry and a hankering for a milk brand laser-focused on boosting morale.
Jones says her father’s passing clarified her calling and equipped her with an antenna for detecting struggle in others. “I’m totally comfort- able in asking people the hard questions — and hearing if they’re not OK, too,” she says. “Mental health is everyone’s responsibility and we have to go on the journey with people.” She advises approaching others on their own turf to encourage a better reception; to meet people where they’re most comfortable. Her understanding has been honed from a unique vantage point, after all: sitting in the chair her dad sat in, at his desk, in his office. She says, “I’m writing chapter two of the story he began.”
A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHY: At the time T Australia commissioned this portfolio, much of the country was in lockdown. As such, our portrait photographer, Kelly Geddes, undertook T Australia’s very first remote shoot, via Facetime and Zoom. Geddes revelled in the challenge, using screenshots and photos of her computer screen to capture the scenes, the latter technique producing some of her favourite pictures. “They had a natural and raw quality to them,” she says. The files were sent to the darkroom service Blanco Negro, where they were hand-printed from a digital enlarger, toned in the darkroom as silver gelatin prints and then scanned for publication as black-and-white images. Each subject wears a T-shirt by the Australian label Nobody Denim; the same style appears in flat lay photographs throughout the portfolio. In these, the T-shirt serves as a “blank canvas”, altered by the subjects in a way that represents the legacy they hope to leave.