Vale John P Bennett AM - founder Ashgrove Farms/Cheese and Australian Farming Legend 2017

24 January 2023

John Bennett AM – Australian Farming Legend: Visionary and leader of the Australian Dairy Industry

John Bennett AM co-founder of Ashgrove Farms and Ashgrove Cheese dedicated his life to farming, his family, the local Deloraine community and transforming the Tasmanian and Australian Dairy Industry. In 2017, John was awarded the Kondinin ABC Rural Australian Farming Legend of the Year recognising his visionary leadership, courage and life-time contribution to the Australian Dairy Industry.

In 1961, John received a P&O Young Farmer Scholarship to study agriculture in the United Kingdom. The experience of 16 farm stays, visiting some 180 farms and attending Agriculture Research Institutions to learn about the latest farming practices in the United Kingdom made an indelible mark on John’s life. The experience ignited his drive to innovate and lead change both at home on the farm and in the Australian Dairy Industry during the extremely challenging times for Tasmanian dairy farmers in the 1970s.

Services to the Australian Dairy Industry and Agri politics

John first represented dairy farmers in 1972 as a delegate to the Northern Dairy Division of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association and in 1974 was elected as Chair of the State Division of the Dairy Council. He was a founding member of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) and a member of the inaugural board of the National Farmers Federation.

John was President of the Australian Dairy Farmers Federation from 1976 to 1985 and Deputy Chair of the Australian Dairy Corporation from 1981 to 1986. As inaugural Chair of the Australian Dairy Industry Conference (1976 – 1985) he was responsible for bringing together farmers and dairy manufacturers for the first time. In 1980, John initiated the establishment of the Australian Speciality Cheese Producers Association.

Appointed as Director of Asia Dairy Industries (HK) Ltd (1977 to 1987) led to John’s appointment as President Commissioner of P.T. Indo Milk (1977 to 1984) and a Director of Thai Dairy Industry Co. Ltd from 1980 to 1987. John’s international status was evident when he was elected Vice President of the International Federation of Agriculture Dairy Division in 1982. In 1991, John was awarded Member Order of Australia for his services to the Australian dairy industry,

Bennett brothers both at the Dairy Tasmania Awards 2022 Rosemount – John on the right

John was instrumental in shaping the modern Australian Dairy Industry through the reforms that were implemented to the sectors marketing system in the 1980s. Until 1983, the dairy industry operated under a marketing system developed in the 1930s, which was antiquated and needed change. Under John’s leadership, the dairy industry remained united and successfully negotiated essential reforms to the industry’s structure.

As reported in the article ‘Tassie dairy farmer key national figure’ by Anabel Fulton in The Examiner on 1 February 1991, “During his time as chairman of the Australian Dairy Farmers Federation and the Australian Dairy Industry Conference, Mr Bennett also tackled the EC over its subsides, ensured the development of a Memorandum of Understanding for the dairy industry as part of the Closer Economic Relations agreement with New Zealand and had significant input into the Kerin Plan. The battle for reduction in EC subsidies alone has saved the industry $10 million per year.” On the Federal Government’s Kerin Plan and concern that it would damage the dairy industry if changes were not made, the article quoted John’s efforts to persuade the Minister and Prime Minister to amend the original plan, which was done after the legislation was blocked in the senate, “result[ing] in many more dairy farmers than there would have been if the plan had got through.”

John was strongly committed to dairy research and helping dairy farmers and manufacturers to compete better, grow and stay market relevant. This included being a key driver and the inaugural Chair of the development of the Australian Dairy Herd Improvement Scheme, which was formed in 1982. Establishing the scheme involved significant challenges as it necessitated all states cooperating to provide the data required to identify the genetically best animals in the national dairy herd. John’s leadership was critical to the project during its formative years.

John also initiated the establishment of the National Dairy Farmer Magazine to provide farmers with up to date technological know-how. Today, in an age of rapidly advancing technology, with increasing popularity and interactivity offered by the internet a regional magazine may seem unimportant. However, thirty years ago the establishment of a free specialised rural magazine educated farmers and connected regional communities, business, and families, and continues to be published today.

Building Ashgrove Farms and Ashgrove Cheese

The idea of starting on farm dairy processing was initiated by John in the late 1980’s and arose from his experience as a young man studying agriculture in the UK where he observed cheese manufacturing on family farms. As John explained, “At the time unemployment in North-West Tasmania was high, Tasmanian Dairy farmers were the worst paid in the world, and five generations of the Bennett families were proudly in gumboots and were going nowhere.” The notion of a vertically integrated paddock to plate farm was unheard of back in the 1990’s and the risk for John and his brother, Michael and their wives, Connie and Maureen, the original founders of Ashgrove Farms and Ashgrove Cheese was enormous.

John took a hands-on approach to the development of Ashgrove Cheese on his farm at Elizabeth Town. He was the Owner-Builder and Project Manager for the initial Ashgrove Cheese factory construction and well as Owner-Builder for subsequent developments. The original Ashgrove Cheese factory was hand-built by John and a local builder in 1992/93, from recycled building materials and equipment sourced from the Rossarden Mine. John was actively involved in all subsequent developments and expansions of the factory. With an integrated business approach, John headed Ashgrove Farms developing it into one of the strongest and most successful dairy farming family businesses in Australia, which is now led by his son, Paul. Furthermore, John initiated and guided as Chair of Ashgrove Cheese the developments for it to become one of Australia’s leading premium independent dairy brands and on-farm manufacturers.

Community and family

John also served his local community including as a Deloraine Municipal Councillor from 1970 to 1979, a member of the Deloraine Rotary Club for 20 years including President in 1997/1998, awarded a Paul Harris Fellow in 2002, and Director of the Tasmanian Craft Fair in 2000 - 2001 and 2004. In later years, John spent more time with his own woodwork craftsmanship and was always delighted to assist his grandchildren with their school woodwork projects. John was a keen fisherman and loved his trips to the Great Lakes, magnificent Tasmanian rivers and deep-sea fishing trips with friends.

In 2006, John was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and while battling recurrent episodes he continued his work at Ashgrove. John’s life was one of service – to his family, his community and the Australian Dairy Industry – it was a full life and well-lived. John is survived by his wife of 58 years, Connie, and children, Susan, Mary, Paul and Anne, and adored grandchildren.

John was a visionary whose mantra was “to look beyond, embrace cultural and rural diversity, transcend boundaries, and stay focused.” As his daughter, Susan, wrote on John being awarded the Australian Farming Legend of the Year, “Dad’s focus has always been community and on small companies ‘doing their bit’. That entrepreneurial spirit, passion, energy and love of community, will ensure modern farming in this country remains not only viable and sustainable, but continues to make a vital and growing contribution to our nation’s economy.”

Vale John