University of Melbourne Magazine

Drawing inspiration from our family’s fields of gold

  • Peter and Alicia Cain with their Dad, Maurice

    Peter and Alicia Cain with their Dad, Maurice, on the farm at Natte Yallock. PICTURE: ALICE CAMPBELL

    By Alicia Cain (BCom, BProp 2010, Queen’s College)

    We were drinking a nice bottle of wine when the idea came to us. My brother Peter (BAgr, BCom 2007) and I were reflecting on how good the wine industry is at reserving the highest-quality grapes for making the best wines and at telling the story behind the labels. In the wine industry, provenance matters.

    Other farmed produce, such as grains, are treated as simple commodities, sold by farmers in bulk quantities, pushed out the farm gate, losing provenance and any quality distinction.

    Our Dad has always grown top-quality oats on our farm, winning several awards during his 55 years on the land. The more we thought about it, we wanted to embrace the example of wine by taking something from our farm to complete the journey from paddock to plate.

    We couldn’t name one brand of rolled oats that was single origin, supplied directly from an Australian farm. So, the concept was born: we would sell traditional rolled oats, quick oats, groats and steel-cut oats, all from our family farm at Natte Yallock, north-central Victoria.

    As the idea firmed, we chose the name ‘Dad’s Oats’ as a tribute to family farming, to our Dad and Mum – Maurice and Ruth – and to the generations who have tirelessly worked the land before us.

    We revealed the brand name to our parents after we had packaged the first batch. They were surprised and delighted. Even if the idea didn’t go anywhere, and we struggled to sell even a packet, we would still enjoy eating Dad’s Oats for breakfast.

    Our fifth-generation family farm is in the foothills of the Pyrenees, about 100 kilometres north-west of Ballarat. There are no shops or pubs nearby, just a sports reserve and a primary school.

    But life was never boring growing up at Natte Yallock. On school holidays we’d help Dad with the cropping, the sheep or just general farm work. Ours was the biggest backyard you could imagine, with endless places to explore and trees to climb.

    “Even if the idea didn’t go anywhere, and we struggled to sell even a packet, we would still enjoy eating Dad’s Oats for breakfast.”

    When we told Dad about our idea of selling branded rolled oats from the 800-hectare farm he was a little apprehensive. Although he understood the difference in quality, he was concerned we wouldn’t be able to compete with cheap oats in the supermarket.

    Mum and Dad always encouraged us to follow our ideas and have been very supportive. This time was no different. Although they had some initial reservations, I think they were excited by our enthusiasm and energy.

    We started selling oats late last year at farmers’ markets in Melbourne. Since then, we have expanded to supply a number of cafes around the city, and have launched an online store and a subscription-based service. It’s early days, but we have been encouraged and excited by the market feedback.

    Dad’s faith in the concept was boosted when he came to one of our markets, in Daylesford. It was a busy day and we were a little short of staff, so he was thrown into the role of explaining to customers where the oats were from, how they were grown and processed.

    On that day, he realised just how important food provenance is to many people. Not everyone is focused on simply buying the cheapest food they can find in the supermarket. There’s another group of consumers that cares about quality and embraces the single-origin concept.

    Our brother Matthew (BAgr 2003) now operates the farm, with the experience and the wise counsel of Dad close at hand.

    He has also enjoyed talking directly to customers who appreciate the quality of the grain, the hard work that goes into ensuring the best produce, and the best-practice farming techniques we employ.

    And then there’s the care that goes into maintaining the sustainability of that precious land at Natte Yallock.