Sallie Jones is excited to part the curtains on the renowned Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) when she joins the program’s 30th cohort this year, as the recipient of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation scholarship.
As co-founder of Gippsland Jersey – an independent, farmer-owned premium milk brand that ensures farmers are paid a fair price for their milk – Sallie has already walked an extraordinary leadership journey.
It was in the midst of the milk price crisis of 2016 that Sallie’s second-generation dairy farmer dad, Michael Bowen, took his own life following a departure from the family farm and a spiral into depression and ill mental health. Sallie turned the grief that followed into a quest to build something that would honour her dad.
“Gippsland Jersey started in the very early days after dad died,” Sallie reflects. “We had milk in a bottle six months after his death.”
Together with business partner and Gippsland dairy farmer, Steve Ronalds, Sallie has spent the past seven years at the helm of a rapidly growing grass-roots dairy company built on three pillars: a fair price for farmers; tackling metal health stigma; and practising kindness.
“I was fortunate to have a very strong conviction that dad’s death doesn’t shame my family and it doesn’t shame me,” Sallie says.
“The fact that I’ve been able to write this second chapter off the back of dad’s work and legacy – there’s no way could we have done this without him forging the way… Dad was opinionated in a way that meant he always stood up for what he believed in. He knew dairy farmers should be paid more… He had such a strong constitution, and it has equipped me to have a crack.”
With dairying in the genes, and her dad’s principals and passion spurring them forward, Sallie and Steve have grown a powerful business model in an industry where dairy farmers often struggle as ‘price takers’.
Open to the ARLP and all its possibilities
As Gippsland Jersey prepares to mark seven years in September 2023, Sallie is ready to embrace the ARLP and all it offers.
“I applied because Andrew Bulmer, who owns Bulmer Farms, has done the ARLP (Course 24) and has spoken so highly of it. We’ve also hosted the last two ARLP cohorts at our factory in Lakes Entrance. Through that I’ve gained some insight into the program and the calibre of people who do it,” she says.
“I understand that having the power of a network is such a big thing when you want to create change – doors open doors. ARLP leaders are all doing incredible things in their industries. I’m fascinated for myself, because I do want to see if I can extend and deepen my understanding of leadership and of how I can do better moving forward.
“I think 90 per cent of success in leadership is about how we deal with people. I am fortunate to be naturally intuitive and empathetic, and that’s how I’ve managed to get through. I certainly don’t hold all the skills and I’m not the most qualified in so many areas, but I can identify the people who will create a strong team.”
Keeping pace with success and growth
In less than a decade Gippsland Jersey has grown from a fledgling business processing milk from one herd to an operation with a staff of 20, supplied by four dairy farms, distributing to around 400 stockists almost exclusively brought on board by Sallie, including Coles, IGA and Woolworths.
“We’re getting some maturity about us. We are an agile company and a little brand that keeps larger companies on their toes. We don’t have big boards to report to, and no stifling of our ideas and energy, which I absolutely love,” Sallie says.
“Because the brand has been built so much on my own personal story and identity. I won’t lie, I’ve put everything I have into it. I’ve done that grieving and I don’t have that adrenaline surge any more. Things mature and calm down and you hit a routine, so now I really have to watch my batteries. I’m very mindful of making sure I look after myself.”
While Sallie’s background in PR and her ease with social media and storytelling has been a critical part of the company’s success, it is the energy of a community that has given Gippsland Jersey its wings.
“You can only start a business if you have credibility, and it’s so important to invest in your own community,” Sallie, who is also co-founder of the Warragul Farmers Market, says.
Having decided to honour her father through a grass-roots milk venture, Sallie and Steve embarked on a crowdfunding movement to enable them to return to Sallie’s family farm to establish their Lakes Entrance processing facility.
“We raised $110,000 in three weeks off the back of social media. When it was crunch time to deliver, we felt like we had all eyes on us because we had something created by the community. We thought ‘we can’t fail now’,” she says.
“When it was coming together, I remember visiting the factory all gutted and freshly painted and getting ready to open. I was teary and overwhelmed with a sense of ‘oh wow this is happening’. It still had the same desk and chair that dad had. Everything was the same, it was like a full circle. Dad had wanted a well-oiled functioning factory but had never had the opportunity to put the structures in place.”
Powerful story builds momentum for the future
“Sharing my story over and over and reliving the emotions has been therapeutic and exhausting at the same time,” Sallie reflects.
“There was a time when I’d take myself right back there because I wanted my words to be in the moment and convey all those feelings. I’m able to do it now in a way that I don’t have to go back there, but it’s still authentic … I know what we’re doing is so important from the conversations I’ve had with farmers who still struggle with the taboos of mental health – especially rural men.”
From a mental health calendar capturing the stories of Gippsland dairy farming families, to a ‘random acts of kindness’ movement supporting farmers and their families, Sallie invests in preventative mental health action.
“I am also passionate about creating a place that will be a ‘well farm’. In Australia we don’t have anything bridging the gap between a psychiatric ward and a health retreat, but in Europe the model is common,” she says.
As she prepares to put leadership under the microscope, Sallie is aware that ‘heart’ is the thread that guides her.
“I don’t think I know any other way. I’m excited for the ARLP so that I can learn a few more tools to equip myself with as a leader and continue to grow.”
ARLP Course 30 commences in June. If Sallie’s story has inspired you to want to step up in your leadership, submit an expression of interest for the next ARLP intake with Course 31 applications opening on 2 June. Visit https://rural-leaders.org.au/australian-rural-leadership-program/.