Today, King Island Dairy is well-known for its range of specialty cheese and is a major source of employment and tourist revenue. But the earliest dairy factory on the island didn’t make cheese at all.
King Island sits squarely in the path of the “Roaring 40s” that howl through Bass Strait, south of the Australian mainland. Although the island had been used for grazing since the 1850s, the land was not opened for settlement until 1888, with the first survey being conducted in 1891. Just one year later, a butter factory was opened under the name of the King Island Dairy Factory Co. Ltd and was, according to the Hobart Mercury, well supported by the settlers.
In 1902, a new organisation was formed by the island’s dairy farmers and began operation as the King Island Co-operative Dairy Factory Company Limited. This enterprise became one of the two parent companies that evolved into today’s King Island Dairy. The Co-operative had early success, with the Launceston Examiner reporting in December 1902:
The King Island Diary Factory has from all accounts, already established an excellent reputation on the mainland for the production of good butter. The factory has indeed succeeded beyond expectations, and has created considerable activity and enterprise among the settlers. Although it has been in working order only for about three months, and has had many difficulties to overcome, the output of butter has risen during the past few weeks to a ton per week. There is every reason to hope that the supply of milk to the factory will still continue, although in diminished quantities, during the summer months, and that the machinery will go on working throughout the year.
As early as 1905, new equipment was installed, including the “latest thing in refrigerating plants” and the factory was exporting butter to England.
The beginnings of cheese production on King Island are attributed to Archibald Gunn, one of the island’s leading graziers and dairymen. A shareholder of the Co-operative, in 1936 he set up a proprietary cheese and butter factory, A. E. Gunn Pty Ltd, at Wickham in the north of the island. Initially, he faced opposition from the cooperative, but in 1938 the two enterprises merged. “Henceforth everything should run smoothly and profitably”,” wrote the local newspaper.
This was not the case. Through much of its history, the company has struggled financially. In the late 1930s and 1940s, government assistance helped to prop up the operation, with some calling into question whether Archibald Gunn was colluding with the Tasmanian Agricultural Bank to exploit the system. In 1945, there was a proposed merger giving the Melbourne-based Kraft Walker Cheese Company a controlling interest, but by 1947 this had fallen apart and the decision was taken to abandon cheese making altogether. The Wickham factory was closed.
For the next 30 years, the newly constituted King Island Dairy Products Co-operative Society Limited continued to produce butter, later moving into spray-dried milk powder and whole milk. However, by the mid-1970s, the co-operative was in trouble again and receivers were appointed in 1977.
The following year, the enterprise was sold to a private company, Interlandi Cheese, which already had an operation in Warragul, Victoria. The company, headed by New Zealander Bill Kirk, made cheese for Kraft, but began to move into specialty cheese. Kirk told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001 that when he bought the business it was a “collapsed co-op in a moribund dairy community where some farmers still milked on dirt floors”. It was Kirk who came up with the idea for a gorgonzola-like cheese called King Island Blue and, under his stewardship, the distinctive sailing ship logo was designed and the first King Island Brie hit the market in 1985.
However, Kirk also faced financial difficulties when the Tasmanian government demanded repayment of a $900,000 development loan and the company was sold. An Australian Financial Review article traces the complex history of the company’s ownership and management from the Interlandi purchase until its public listing in 1999. During this time, King Island Dairy continued its move into specialty cheeses, becoming the Australian market leader in the category. The company diversified, buying other off-island cheese makers and branching out into seafood and other gourmet products.
Cash flow continued to be an issue, however. Then, in 2001, the company was acquired by the conglomerate National Foods which, in 2009, was sold to the Japanese company, Kirin, becoming part of its Lion Dairy and Drinks Division. The story didn’t end there. In 2019, King Island Dairy was sold again, this time to the Canada-based dairy company, Saputo.
King Island brand cheeses are still made by hand from the milk produced by local dairy farmers. Legend says that the island’s lush grasses are a result of seeds from the straw mattresses washed ashore from the many early shipwrecks off the treacherous, rocky coast. More likely, they’re the result of pasture improvement by farmers taking advantage of the year-round rains and temperate climate. Today King Island Dairy produces a range of hard and soft cheeses, some named after local landmarks such as Cape Wickham, Stokes Point and Netherby Cove. The cheese store, on the site of the original butter factory at Loorana, is a must-visit for tourists who brave the bumpy flight across Bass Strait to the island.