Heart and Soul of a region

1500 2250 In Good Company | Northern Rivers

Norco Co-operative

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Heart and Soul of a region

Norco has an impressive origin story. In 1895, 40 local farmers convened under a tree in the small hinterland town of Clunes to discuss how they could ensure a bright future for dairy producers in the Northern Rivers. Those farmers resolved to forge a path based on collaboration, cooperation and partnership – the idea that they would be stronger together. Norco grew out of this auspicious gathering that dates earlier than Federation, and today it is the largest (and oldest) dairy cooperative in Australia. 

“The Northern Rivers is the heart and soul of Norco,” says Norco CEO, Michael Hampson, “and we’ve been part of the fabric of this community for 127 years.” 

The company is practically part of the landscape of this region: go for a drive through the Byron hinterland and beyond and you’re certain to pass a Norco truck or two doing the rounds between drop-offs. Norco could even be described as iconic. 

It also remains a distinctive business model. Norco is 100 per cent farmer-owned, with 292 dairy farmers in its co-op, across 199 farms in eastern Australia. The company actively champions and supports these farmers, and upholds high ethical standards in the treatment of cows. 

“When you purchase Norco, you’re choosing to support Australian farmers,” says Michael. “Profits go back to our farming families and their local communities. Every drop is from here, and every cent stays here. 

“We also go beyond the farm gate to support our famers at every stage of the process to produce the best-tasting milk. Raising the healthiest, happiest cow starts with the quality of the grass, the feed, and above all, animal welfare. The healthiest cows make the most nutritious, creamiest milk that we simply, naturally process and deliver fresh.” 

Those cows are responsible for some immensely popular products that range from fridge staples to more innovative dairy items that cater to an array of dietary needs – Norco moves with the times. White milk, flavoured milk, ice-cream, cheese, butter, sour cream and custard sit along niche products such as non-homogenised milks, Norco Merlo Cold Brew Latte, and the award-winning Norco Natural Elbo Style Cheese, which is suitable for vegetarians. 

But like all businesses, the trifecta of pandemic, bushfires and flood have thrown many curveballs at Norco. And certainly, these things affect a business of Norco’s size differently to many of the smaller businesses in the region. 

“Since day one, we’ve been committed to doing everything we could to support our staff in these difficult times”

The company and staff have faced the harsh realities of disaster and it has been hard on everyone involved. After its facility in South Lismore was all but destroyed by flooding in February 2022 (the company suffered more than $100 million worth of damage all up) Norco was forced to temporarily stand down 170 staff, something that sent ripples through the local community and attracted media attention. However, Michael says, things are not as gloomy as they might appear. 

“Since day one, we’ve been committed to doing everything we could to support our staff in these difficult times,” he says. “But since the floods, our facility has been non-operational, which means that there were simply no jobs for people to do.” 

Thanks to government assistance, Norco was able to keep staff employed for 30 weeks – a period that ended in late September 2022, which unfortunately led to lay-offs. Michael adds that as soon as the facility reopens next year, staff will be welcomed back. 

“We also launched a Go Fund Me flood appeal that raised $110,000, which was distributed directly to 44 Norco staff and some Norco farmers who lost their properties or dairies during the floods,” Michael says.

“As a best-practice employer, Norco is certainly fulfilling all its necessary workforce obligations, in addition to offering a range of other support measures.” 

The rebuilding of the facility will be aided by $34.7 million from the Federal and NSW State Government’s Anchor Business Support Program, to go alongside $11 million that remains outstanding from the 2019 Regional Growth Fund (RGF), and a $59 million co-contribution from Norco itself. All this, Michael hopes, will not only allow Norco to reinstate staff, but will also boost the ongoing revival of the local economy in the Northern Rivers in the wake of these multiple hardships. 

“We certainly hope that Norco rebuilding the ice-cream factory gives other local businesses the confidence to also rebuild – because the Lismore recovery needs a thriving local economy.”

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