ONE Sunday afternoon, Michael Bowen walked into his daughter’s kitchen and, to her complete shock, broke down.
He was having a mental breakdown – but couldn’t put into words what was wrong; he could only sob like his heart was breaking.
Leaving school at age 13 to work on the family dairy farm, Michael had a big engine – often working up to 18 hour days while trying to juggle family life and stay afloat.
But almost overnight, Michael changed – caught in a darkness he couldn’t escape.
It was the beginning of a road that would break not just his families’ hearts, but all of those in his Gippsland community.
In March 2016, Michael Bowen took his own life.
He had been a successful entrepreneurial dairy farmer; he loved his four children, his farm, his cows and his neighbours – but mental illness took that from him.
This June, Michael’s daughter Sallie will drop an 18/19 calendar across Gippsland in honour of the man who taught her the meaning of hard work, and the value and love of storytelling.
“I absolutely loved my Dad; he was kind, compassionate and bold – a man who could make anything happen,” Sallie recalled.
“His capacity for life equalled three men – he was strong as an ox, nothing could break him.
“Or so we thought.”
Two months after Michael’s death, the dairy crisis brought other families to their knees – families like Steve Ronalds’, who first settled in Gippsland in 1895.
A chance encounter between the two – and a common desire to help Victorian dairy farmers – saw Sallie and Steve decide to take on the industry one milk bottle at a time – launching their own brand, Gippsland Jersey, 18 months ago.
“We’re just two people trying to get something done,” Steve said.
“When we launched, we only had orders for about 100 litres, which is not a business – but we had sold 5000 litres in the first week.”
Gippsland Jersey has three key business pillars; farmers must be paid a fair price, the stigma around mental illness must be broken down, and old fashioned kindness should be part of the everyday.
“A few cents from every bottle of Gippsland Jersey milk goes into a fund that is then used to support local dairy farmers,” Sallie said.
“We love to do random acts of kindness for dairying families who are doing it tough.”
Steve currently milks 400 Jersey cows, and is the main supplier of the brand.
A second farm, located in Poowong, also supplies the brand, helping put 20,000 litres a week into bottles.
Although both Steve and Sallie are passionate about all aspects of the dairy industry, they are perhaps most driven when it comes to helping raise mental health awareness.
“Mental health is a serious illness that requires care, help and support,” Sallie said.
“It cannot be left to fix itself – you must reach out and seek help.”
The Gippsland Jersey Calendar is more than just something to hang on the kitchen wall.
Not only is there a listing for healthcare professionals, there are also 12 stories – raw tales of heartbreak, of loneliness and of emerging from the darkness.
“These stories are real, they are farmers just like everyone else,” Sallie said.
“When you suffer from mental illness, it can feel like you are the only one – but that just isn’t the case.
“That’s what I want to get across more than anything – there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
That day in the kitchen, watching her father cry, is an image forever burned in Sallie’s mind.
She will never forget watching her Dad battle the years of depression that followed.
“He lost that fire in his belly,” she recalled simply.
“We are left with no answers, just a ripple of sadness and heartbreak.
“That’s not how my Dad should be remembered – it’s not how I think of him – but mental illness took him from us before he was actually gone.”
Despite the heartbreak, Sallie and Steve have reclaimed their lives – they are forging ahead with their big dreams for Gippsland Jersey, and their enthusiasm and compassion has helped earn them a contract to supply 12 Gippsland Woolworths stores with milk.
At the end of the day, the big orders are nice, but they are not the cornerstone of Gippsland Jersey.
Instead, the little brand wants to make a big difference in people’s heads and hearts – because out of their own personal darkness, Sallie and Steve can still see the stars.
If you would like more information on where to purchase Gippsland Jersey products (including a copy of the calendar), or to find out how to become a stockist, visit the website at www.gippslandjersey.com.au.