Simon Shulz is taking a stand. After watching the War on Waste back in 2017, Simon realised that as a producer of milk, he was directly contributing to the problem of single-use plastics. He decided then and there to do something about it and three months later he was trialling a range of milk sold in reusable glass bottles.
Simon Shulz is a third-generation dairy producer and farmer. With his father he runs Shulz Organic Dairy in Timboon, in southwest Victoria. He lives there with his wife, Abbey, and their three, soon-to-be four, children.
A Family Legacy
His grandfather bought the property in 1972 and ran it biodynamically, later converting to certified organic. He opened a small cheese factory on-site in the eighties, producing highquality organic cheeses. During the late nineties he sold the manufacturing side of the business, but kept the dairy cows, which were managed by Simon’s father.
In the early 2000s Simon and his grandfather decided to reinvigorate the family business together and started processing again, selling milk, cheeses and yoghurts. Since then, his grandfather has retired; Simon’s father manages the farm and the cows, and Simon manages the manufacturing and branding.
The Wake-Up Call
Simon first started thinking about the problem of waste back in 2013 when Joost Bakker, founder of the Silo, the revolutionary waste-free café in Melbourne, approached him. Joost contacted Simon to see if he could supply milk in stainless steel cans. Simon agreed and through that process learnt a lot about waste and how the process works. Not long after that, Simon bought glass bottles, but didn’t get around to doing anything with them, so they sat dormant for four years.
After watching the first season of War on Waste (WOW) in 2017, Simon remembered the glass bottles. ‘It put in sharp focus that we were contributing heavily as a business with our single-use plastic bottles. So I thought, let’s do it. Let’s release the product with the glass bottles.’
A Rapid Success
Within three months they released a small amount of milk in glass bottles through the farmers’ market. They sold out within thirty minutes. Simon doubled the number of bottles the next week and sold out within 30 minutes again; they doubled it the next week and sold out again. ‘We continued this until we were reaching 500 litres a week and that was our capacity at the time, because it was time-consuming work, washing out the bottles.’
They left it at that for 12 months, so that they could learn how to sell milk sustainably and economically. Then Simon travelled to the US to see it done on a mass scale and came back with a whole range of ideas. Not long after, they launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $100,000 to buy the necessary equipment. Because it had been more than 20 years since anyone had sold milk in glass, there was no old equipment to be bought – it all had to be new.
Clockwise from above left: Shulz’s cows on green pasture; The reusable glass bottles; Simon with his wife Abbey and their three children. Photos by Ethan Lewis
By the start of 2019 they were producing 5000 glass bottles a week, eliminating up to 10 tonnes of plastic from our broken recycling system. In contrast to single-use plastics, the glass bottle journeys through a circular system: a brand new bottle gets washed and filled on-site, it is delivered to the retailer, the consumer buys from the retailer or farmer’s market, the consumer uses the milk and then returns the bottle to their retailer or farmers’ market. On return of the bottle, the customer gets a $2 refund, which they prepaid when they purchased the milk.
The $2 is all about encouraging people to return the bottle, which reinforces the circular economy that is the whole point of what Shulz Organic Dairy wanted to do – avoid the bottles ending up in landfill or the broken recycling system. Once returned, the bottles are washed, refilled and then sent back to the stockists to begin the cycle again. Each glass bottle sold will save approximately 40 g of plastic – that’s 120kg per week across 3000 bottles!
A Holistic Approach To Business
‘The process has been made possible because we invested in vertical integration; we run the dairy farm, we run the manufacturing, we run the warehouse in Melbourne and our own trucks deliver to retailers and farmers’ markets. We control every step of the puzzle.’ It is this control of the endto- end process that makes the model economical: as Simon notes, the delivery trucks are returning to the farm anyway – it doesn’t cost any extra to fill them with the returned empty bottles. They’re still learning the process and hope in years to come they can replace their entire production with glass.
‘The driving force is not just to get bigger, but to do what we do better; better for the environment, better for the community, better for myself included.’ Simon hopes that by continuously improving their processes, he can educate other dairy farmers, and encourage them to take that leap and try to manufacture themselves.
The Shulzs consider the environment in all that they do, not just in their reduction of waste. ‘We’re focused on trying to do as little as possible to the milk and the environment. We have non-homogenised milk, because we don’t want to over-process or over-pasteurise.’ On the farm, they want to nurture what they have and not milk it dry. That means nurturing the land and the animals: ten to fifteen percent of the property is covered in trees and they are doing everything they can to improve the pasture and the soil.
They’ve planted shelterbelts throughout the farm that are key to creating microclimates and keeping moisture in the soil. They also compost some 2400 tonnes per year, using inputs from the property (largely manure and straw from bedding) with some added lime and gypsum.
‘The advantages of running our farm organically over the years is in the anecdotal evidence around us: as we progress through summer when it dries out, our farm stays green longer. And when we get the first drop of rain, our paddocks get green before the neighbours’.’
It Takes A Village
Over the years Simon has come to see the value of food: how it not just connects us with who we are, but makes us who we are, and it connects us with community as well. The area has developed a great community of businesses who, like Shulz Organic Dairy, are value-adding in some way, be it another cheese factory, an ice creamery, a distillery or a brewery.
‘We all work together as a community to bring more tourists here. And we employ thirty people locally. We have a cellar door here and a café with fruit trees all around. It’s a great place to visit and it’s a great place for the kids to grow up.’
While it’s a lot more work – and more risk! – to run a business independently, the rewards are that people love what you do, and you can run your business the way you want to. From the farming methods to production and distribution, right through to waste, Simon and his family have control over every aspect of their business and have made the decision to not only care for the earth, but also the community around them.