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The Story Behind the Story: MILK MAN

by Sue Neales

The Australian Council of Agricultural Journalists (ACAJ)

Winner of the 2022 IFAJ Star Prize for Print

One of the things I’ve always found with long-form feature writing, especially profiles like my recent award-winning print feature of Australian dairy farmer leader Barry Irvin, is that the longer and better you know the subject, the more likely the resulting article is to capture their essence, drive and motivations.

As an Australian journalist for more than four decades–not always in agriculture–I’ve come across Barry Irvin frequently as one of Australia’s best-known corporate leaders and executive chairman of Australian Stock Exchange-listed Bega Cheese company.

Irvin has always been very approachable and friendly to the media, in keeping with his reputation as one of the “good guys” or leaders with integrity in the not-always-charming world of big business.

His story is also an irresistible one; a reluctant young financial whiz forced back into dairy farming by the early death of his father, who then over the next three decades took his small home-town cheese and butter cooperative from obscurity to become a $A1 billion-plus publicly-owned Australian food giant.

Throw in the feel-good narrative of Bega Cheese more recently buying and bringing back home the iconic Vegemite spread brand from foreign hands, Irvin’s extraordinary contribution in  practical philanthropic endeavours in the establishment of national autism education centres Giant Steps to help his younger son,  and a personal battle with bowel cancer and bushfires, and writing a compelling profile of this key agribusiness figure is a really a gift to any journalist!

It was, of course, helped by the fact Irvin has known me well for more than 20 years, as the national rural and agribusiness reporter for national daily newspaper, The Australian, and through the annual Global Food Forum organised by The Australian, which I helped instigate and where Irvin has been a regular contributor, speaker and mentor over its past decade.

But even when one knows a subject well already, there are always areas of their life unknown, questions unanswered, or never previously asked. That is where I find, as a feature writer, that days of prior and thorough research are required before actually starting the interviewing process.

I like to tell younger journalists,  who are often surprised by how much time I put into researching such a feature even before one question is asked (a luxury these days, I know, but which as a freelancer I can achieve), that by the time I arrive on their doorstep I (almost) know the subject’s mother in law’s maiden name, every story they have told publicly before to other media and  areas of their life where they have not before ventured publicly.

That way, I can try and steer away from the cliches and fixed neat narratives often trotted out by public figures when they are talking about themselves and their lives, and try instead to shift the discussion slightly differently in the hope of peeling away a few more “layers of the onion” to make the resulting article more interesting and insightful than any others which may have gone before.

Irvin spends most of his time in corporate meetings in Melbourne, Sydney and abroad. But every Sunday he tries to drive or fly 450 kilometres south from his Sydney home to the old family dairy property where his oldest son Andrew now farms, so that at the crack of dawn on Monday morning he can return to the milking shed and his cows where he first started his stellar journey, to provide a bit of relief from the daily  grind for both him and his son.

It’s also a ritual which Irvin says reminds him never to become too high-flying or too distant from his roots, since many of Bega Cheese’s major shareholders are still former local coop members running their dairy farms and milking big herds in the lush Bega Valley in southern NSW.

Being still – and isolated – in his quiet country farmhouse was also critical to Irvin’s gentle convalescence after major cancer surgery and treatment, and during the ensuing covid-19 pandemic when he had to be ultra-careful not to become infected with the virus.

Consequently, it was a privilege during one of the many breaks in covid waves in February 2021, when I drove from my small farm in country Victoria 700 kms around the southern coast to Bega, to meet with Barry over two days, in a mix of interviews, photos and few chats with his family, company executives  and other locals.

Sitting outside at 6 am on his broad lawn in the early morning sun as Barry talked about life and death–as well as dairying and the corporate world–is a privilege I will never forget.

My thanks too to AgJournal’s former Editor Ed Gannon, current Weekly Times editor James Wagstaff and AgJournal editor Camille Smith for their ongoing support for me as a freelance journalist, local Bega photographer Robert Hayson for his beautiful photographs, and to the Rural Press  Club of Victoria, the Australian Council of Agricultural Journalists (ACAJ) and the International Federation  of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) for their ongoing support of these global awards.

See you all next year in Alberta Canada!

Sue Neales

Melbourne

Australia

Read “Milk Man” online by clicking here!

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18 Nov: Mark Your Calendar for Canada: IFAJ 2023 World Congress!

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