Gippsland dairy farmers have diversified into tourism and hospitality, making their farm a tourist destination and creating a paddock-to-plate experience for visitors. JEANETTE SEVERS reports.

Nicole and Brendan Saunders moved from New Zealand to Victoria in 2018, and in a short couple of years were running three dairy farms in the Macalister Irrigation District in south-eastern Victoria.

In the 2022-23 season, their farms produced 690,000 kg of milk solids, from 1250 spring-calving cows grazing a mixture of owned and leased land near Maffra, some of it irrigated and some dryland.

Across the three farms they employed a workforce of 12 equivalent full-time (EFT) employees, including backpackers, peaking at 17 EFT during calving.

You’re right — it doesn’t sound like a small farm. It sounds like a major agricultural enterprise.

But it’s what the Saunders did after they finished improving their dairy business as much as they could that earns them a place in this magazine.

Nicole and Brendan Saunders operate two dairy farms and have diversified into horticulture, hospitality and tourism.

In 2023, Nicole and Brendan diversified their business beyond dairy, annexing 0.8 hectares of their farm at Mewburn Park to build a destination tourism feature and hospitality and horticulture business — the Berry Dairy.

“We already had the land and water available for us to use,” Nicole said.

In preparation, they also reduced their dairy holdings to two farms — one owned and one leased — but increased their herd size to 1300 across both farms.

Relinquishing one dairy farm also reduced their available water and their workforce across the two dairy farms to eight EFT.

Building and diversifying their business has been hard work for Nicole (pictured) and Brendan Saunders, but clear objectives in their business plan have helped them articulate their goals and drive production.

On their dairy farm at Mewburn Park, Brendan and Nicole built a café, supported by an animal petting zoo, children’s play area, outdoor seating and dining, and an extensive pick-your-own strawberry farm.

The café was open every day during summer.

“There’s only a few businesses bringing tourists and visitors out this way,” Nicole said.

“I wanted to provide a destination for tourists and local people.”

The Tinamba Hotel is a well-known hospitality business in the district, and Maffra is a short drive away.

The Berry Dairy was conceptualised to expand on existing tourism offerings and offer an alternative venue, with families in mind.

“I spoke to Wellington Shire Council and they were very supportive and helped me to complete the necessary paperwork for a business like this,” Nicole said.

She developed an online social media platform to promote the project and detail the build and growth of the strawberry farm.

This grew an audience before the business opened.

It was an easy step then to launch the business in time for summer and daylight savings.

However, it wasn’t an easy beginning, with three floods in three months from October to Christmas — with about 30 per cent of plants lost, which affected production.

“We lost 30 per cent of the strawberry plants, but we’re planting 20,000 new plants in winter to meet demand next summer,” Nicole said.

Despite strawberry production being down after three floods, visitor numbers have surpassed Nicole Saunder’s projection.

The pick-your-own strawberries option is available November to April.

By the end of December, more than 5000 people had visited the café and picked their own strawberries. That has steadily grown.

“We’re above the target of what I forecasted, and I did forecast pretty high,” Nicole said.

“We’ve had over 10,000 visitors over the last two-and-a-half months.

“That’s despite our strawberries being about two months behind in production of where they should have been, because of the cold and wet weather.

“On the positive side, that means we’ll have strawberries all the way through to April.”

The paddock-to-plate experience is supplemented by a café menu that includes the Saunders’ own grass-fed beef on sliders and in nachos and strawberries are made into jam for scones and included in ice-cream sundaes and cones.

Nicole and Brendan support other local producers and employ six EFT employees for the six months of the year that the café and strawberry fields are open.

The café is also licensed and a local musician provides live music on some Sunday afternoons.

“We’re getting lots of positive feedback from visitors about the Berry Dairy being about agriculture,” Nicole said.

“They like that it’s on the dairy farm and is attracting people to the food in our region.

“The Berry Dairy has been created to connect people to where their food comes from, and with the people who grow that food.”


Nicole and Brendan Saunders have combined dairy, horticulture, tourism and hospitality to bring a paddock to plate experience to visitors to their dairy farm at Mewburn Park.


A herd of 1300 spring calving cows are milked across two dairy farms.