Year of the Camel
2018 is going to be the ‘Year of the Camel’ according to Chris and Megan Williams of Camel Milk Co. Australia. While there is no official proclamation, indications are that their Kyabram based business is going to make it worthy of such accolades.
With traditional dairy businesses under pressure it is no surprise that rural communities are rapidly diversifying and becoming home to a wider range of micro businesses. But camels? Seriously? Two questions that immediately came to mind for me were: 1) How on earth do you milk a camel? and 2) Why on earth would you want to?
A road trip on a hot January morning to the Camel Milk Co. Australia near Kyabram helped answer these two questions for me. The ‘How?’ was easily resolved by arriving right on milking time.
Which brings us to the ‘Why?’
We managed to wrangle Chris off a tractor to sit down with Megan so I could hear first-hand their fascinating story, delivered in half sentences that they finish for each other, a charming testimony to a shared passion. And, to their secret delight, I unwittingly request milk when offered a coffee.
From modest beginnings in 2014 with 3 camels on 100 acres, Chris and Megan have expanded their business to nearly 250 camels on 480 acres with plans to expand even further. Straight away this indicates what a success story it has been but not without the usual risk and hard work associated with a start-up business.
Working with Megan’s parents on their Victorian dairy farm, the newly married couple were looking for something different but still agricultural based. While researching what they could do, their family expanded with the arrival of three active boys within a period of less than four years.
‘We were looking at getting our own farm and getting the work-life balance going,’ says Chris. ‘It was important to us to have a sustainable income and not have all our eggs in the one basket.’ Initially they looked at miniature Herefords and goats but eventually they settled on camels.
To understand why camels were their beast of choice we have to back pedal to when they first met in 2008. Chris had just immigrated from the United Kingdom to work on a cattle station east of Alice Springs and Megan was driving tourist coaches. They met in a pub in Alice Springs; as you do.
In what appears to be love at first sight, Megan jumped ship - or coach to be accurate - and started working with Chris on Andado Station where they frequently came across camels roaming wild. A subsequent fascination grew with these majestic animals that were imported in the 19th Century to help build the telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin, and eventually abandoned to roam free and breed to feral proportions.
When the couple moved to Megan’s family property in Victoria where drought, rising expenses, and declining income, has seen the water dependent dairy industry struggle; they brought with them the knowledge that camels survive well in the harshest of climates. But surely milking camels was unheard of in Victoria?
‘Dad always says that if you are a farmer you are one of the biggest gamblers in the world,’ laughs Megan. ‘We didn’t know for sure if there was a market,’ she acknowledges but, incredibly, as soon as word got out there was a waiting list before they even started producing milk.
What started out as Camel Milk Victoria was soon rebranded Camel Milk Australia Co. when it turned out that fresh camel’s milk is highly sought by a large middle eastern customer base in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth through fine grocers and boutique stalls.
‘In their countries camel milk is a staple,’ says Megan. ‘Australia has a huge advantage over other countries because we have disease free camels. Once you have a recognised brand in Australia then it is trusted overseas as well.’
As a result they are already exporting milk to Hong Kong and Singapore with supplies about to also hit Iran. A shortage in the United States is another opportunity they are currently pursuing.
With high protein and low fat, camel’s milk is also attractive to the fitness market. Sipping the coffee I requested at the start of our interview, it doesn’t even occur to me that I’m drinking camel’s milk until pointed out by Megan. My initial thought is that it tastes very similar to skim milk.
Having resolved the ‘How’ and ‘Why?’ we turn to the many challenges of starting a new business enterprise, not to mention such an unusual one.
Their initial test pilot with three camels proved that they were on to a solid business idea so it was time to purchase more land and more camels. Your bank would be more than willing to help? I ask the question tongue in cheek and inevitably Megan fires up.
‘You see bank adverts that encourage you to do something new, niche and innovative but it’s a load of crock! We changed banks and it was positive for a while but the final decision was made by people in the city who have no idea.’ Instead, the sale of some dairy heifers they were growing helped them get started.
Not relying on finance and taking a ‘stepping stones’ approach turned out to be a huge positive. ‘We had to make the money before we could spend it,’ explains Chris. ‘The advantage is that we own everything,’ adds Megan. ‘It’s good to grow into business, not go into business.’
Sourcing camels has also been tricky. ‘It’s not as easy as buying dairy heifers,’ Chris admits. Usually they are mustered directly from the outback. Their specification of a pregnant female camel hasn’t always been adhered to resulting in one truck load arriving that included bulls and calves and had to be sent back. Where possible they now go and help draft the camels when they are mustered.
Another constant challenge is, with a fourteen-month gestation, trying to guess at what stage of the pregnancy a camel is at. Now that they have their own bulls and breeding program this is becoming a little easier. Feed issues were overcome by finding a ‘fantastic nutritionist who helped us formulate their diet.’
The fact that the majority of camels are wild or semi wild is a significant challenge that also requires dedicated and skilled staff. When the couple first advertised for an experienced camel milker it caused much laughter, but social media and word of mouth got results.
‘In any business its hard to find good staff but doing something niche like we do, they first have to have an absolute love of camels and some skills from being around camels,’ explains Megan. ‘It’s easy to train people who already have a passion.’
As a result, they have a very multicultural workforce with the majority of their seven staff members having either lived or travelled in countries that have camels. When it is time for them to move on, they are often able to recommend someone else to take their place helping out with the recruitment process.
Meeting stringent Australian food production and handling regulations is a necessary evil for any dairy business that Chris and Megan willingly undertook including installation of a pasteuriser plant and cool room.
Both have an Advanced Diploma in Agriculture which has helped them along the way but doing their own research and connecting with the right people in the industry has been crucial to their business success. Attending trade fairs has been a productive investment.
Finding an independent niche distributor took some time and was aided by the many connections formed at a Naturally Good Expo in Sydney. ‘We did it ourselves at first,’ says Chris. ‘Started with a Wayco in the back of the car then upgraded to a refrigerated vehicle.’ Thankfully, they now enjoy a friendly twice a week pick up by Melbourne based Metro Milk that simultaneously provides a service many other small producers in rural Victoria.
Once the business expanded into an international market, it became evident that their customers like a range, not just one product. In addition to fresh camel’s milk, they now also sell soaps, lip balms, body butters, liquid soaps and powdered milk. Research and development continues with a current focus on introducing camel cheese and chocolate products, no mean feat with up to six months required to get to point of sale.
‘We have a lot of money tied up in this that we can only hope to get back,’ Chris admits.
‘Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble,’ Megan agrees, ‘particularly ensuring that we have enough milk to meet demand. We have to meet all the regulations, produce samples, test the market, get customer feedback, and design packaging before we can even start selling.’
Outsourcing some aspects of the business was a wise decision made early on. A professional is contracted to look after their website and the non-fresh products are packaged offsite.
Despite all the challenges of setting up and continuing to grow Camel Milk Australia Co., Chris and Megan have no doubt that they are on the right track.
‘It’s very exciting being our own bosses and doing something different,’ admits Megan.
‘We’re constantly learning,’ agrees Chris, ‘and we’re making a living from something we’ve made from scratch. There’s money in everything if you do it properly.’
Putting back into the community is something else that they enjoy. ‘Employing people and bringing them to live in Kyabram probably gives the pub a lot of business,’ Chris smiles. ‘We also bring visitors to town, give tours of the farm and point out other nearby attractions’ Megan adds. A recent feature on the ABC’s Landline program is giving them and the district added exposure.
‘We all need to understand the ramifications of what happens to rural towns when local agriculture isn’t supported,’ says Megan.
Being able to have their boys, aged 5, 4 and 2 ½, close at hand has always been a priority. While a nanny comes in daily to allow them both to work in the business, the boys often join them when feeding out the camels and every day they have meals together.
‘We want them to grow up and have opportunities. Already they are learning lots of skills as a normal part of their life,’ says Chris. No doubt their eldest son, will be able to tell his prep class about the ‘Year of the Camel’ as he starts school February!
Chris and Megan’s top business tips:
- Do your research.
- Be passionate about what you are doing.
- Educate yourself on what you are going to do.
- Don’t doubt yourself.
- Be a problem solver.
KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE