1895 Norco founded in Byron Bay

Norco Butter Factory, Byron Bay, c1942. Postcard by Murray Views. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Norco is Australia’s last 100 per cent farmer-owned dairy cooperative, with a $651 million turnover as of 2023. It was formed as the North Coast Fresh Food & Cold Storage Co-operative Company Ltd in 1895 after a group of dairy farmers saw the opportunity to control butter production in northeastern New South Wales. The first factory, in Byron Bay, produced some 520 tons of butter in its first 12 months of operation.

Butter manufacturing in Australia had been advanced by the introduction of the mechanical milk separator in the 1880s. Farmers delivered their milk to creameries where the cream was separated and sent to central butter factories. They took home skim milk to feed their pigs. As separators became smaller and could be manually operated, farmers were able to separate the milk themselves. Either way, the process meant that pig farming was a common and profitable adjunct to dairy farming. It’s not surprising, then, that the cooperative also began to make bacon. In 1896, a bacon factory opened at Byron Bay and continued operating for nearly 80 years.

In 1904, the first co-operative was dissolved and a new company called the North Coast Co-operative Limited was formed.  The name changed again in 1925, with the company becoming Norco. More butter factories were opened in the north coast area, the number eventually rising to 20 – Byron Bay, Murwillumbah, Lismore, Kyogle, Tweed Heads, Tyalgum, Uki, Binna Burra, Ballina, Corndale, Bonalbo, Ettrick, Mt Lindesay, Alstonville, Coraki, Nimbin, Dunoon, The Channon, Cawongla and Wiangaree.

The Byron Bay factory became the source, not only of bacon and hams but of a range of Norco smallgoods. Among them was Byron Sausage, a local variety of the kind of luncheon meat elsewhere known as Strassburg, Fritz, Windsor Sausage or Devon. It’s not clear when Byron Sausage joined the range, but it was certainly on the market by 1934. In that year, the Northern Star in Lismore praised the Norco display at the North Coast National Exhibition, writing:

The exhibit at this year’s exhibition includes sides, flitches, hams, Byron sausage, saveloys and frankfurts, as well as butter and lard, tinned tongues, brawn, sausages, Norco lunch, ham pate and ham slice. Blocks of Norco ice, claimed to be the best in the State, contain a model of the Norco cow and a bunch of flowers.

Norco reported in October 1937 that the company had made 1,147 tons of butter for the month and slaughtered 4,822 pigs. They prompted suppliers to order their Christmas hams early and promoted a special Christmas parcel of smallgoods, suitable for gifts or home use.

The parcel contains one 1lb. tin each of Lunch, Tongues, Sausages, Brawn, Feet; one ½lb. tin of Camp Pie and Sausages; also three tins of 3oz. Ham Pate and six tins of 1½oz. Pate. The price at all branches and depots is 7/6 per case.

Over time, the emphasis shifted from meat to a diversified range of dairy products.  Norco began producing powdered milk in 1949, moving into ice cream and fresh milk in 1950. In 1962, Norco headquarters moved from Byron Bay to Lismore. The Byron Bay butter factory closed in 1972 and its bacon factory in 1975.

Today, Norco Co-operative Limited owns and operates 199 dairy farms in northern NSW and south-east Queensland. Their products include flavoured milk, white milk, cream and custard, cheese, ice cream and butter. The company also has an agribusiness arm, selling Norco stock feeds and distributing a wide range of farming supplies and equipment.

Byron Sausage is no more.

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