Did you know Canberra once used to have 100 milkos or "home vendors" delivering milk to local homes?
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Joe Clift, 79, delivers milk to 20 suburbs on the southside. Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong, Capitol Chilled Foods

Now there are just two – Joe Clift, 79, who covers the southside and Michelle Priest, 51, who looks after Reid and Campbell on the northside.

The focus is back on the humble milko, the long-lost hero of suburbia, as Canberra Milk celebrates 50 years with the establishment of the Canberra Milk Authority in 1971.

Back in the early days of the authority, 100 milkos or home vendors would deliver the milk direct to people’s homes across Canberra.

But the deregulation of the dairy industry from 2000 and the demise of the Milk Authority and government-controlled milk supply made it tougher for milkos to survive, as different, often cheaper products entered the market and an increasing maze of regulations became difficult to negotiate.

The milkos are owner-operators who buy the product from Capitol Chilled Foods and sell it to their customers. Mrs Priest said the now-defunct Milk Authority and Milk Vendors Association used to offer a lot of support but now the operators had to negotiate everything on their own.

“We love it but it’s not for everyone,” she said.

Their customers are usually elderly or big families who need a regular supply of milk but don’t have the fridge space to stockpile it.

Mrs Priest laughed as some families tried to circumvent the mum’s attempt to put them on low-fat milk, asking for full-cream to be delivered when she’s away.

Mr Clift, who plans to retire when he turns 80 in January and sell off part of his business, has been serving the southside for 22 years. He started the milk run in his late 50s when he didn’t have a job and “at that age, I didn’t think I was employable”.

He now employs runners and drivers but is still very much part of the business. Mondays are busy, doing 120 customers.

“My clientele know me, I know them. Some of them are getting long in the tooth, like me…. It’s therapy, it keeps me fit,” he said.

Michelle Priest has been operating P and M Priest Milk Vendors for 24 years, initially with her husband as a way to bring extra money into the household. Her husband eventually moved into other work, and so did she. The milk run has become more of a hobby job, a way to offer work to local teenagers.

“I do the local area where my kids grew up and went to school, where I go to church, the local shops and everything so you get to know everybody, so you’re like, ‘The Local Milko’. It’s great,” she said.

“I love when you get the message going ‘No milk tonight, thank you’ and they’ll hang up my husband will go, ‘Who was that?” and I’m like, ‘Oh that’s so and so from such and such street’. He’s like, ‘How do you know this?’. You get to know your customers, especially doing it 24 years and some of those customers I’ve had the whole time.”

Mrs Priest was a runner for a milko when she was a teenager. She said safety had improved a lot since then and there was no hanging off the back of the truck.

“Any time the runners have fallen, I’d say, ‘I’ve done worst’ because it was different when we were young because you didn’t have all the safety things. I’ve got some wicked scars from when I fell off the truck,” she said, with a laugh.

The milkos proved critical during the coronavirus lockdown, with Capitol Chilled Foods also supplying them with eggs as well as milk. Mrs Priest said on a day she normally delivered three dozen eggs, at the height of the lockdown she delivered 24 dozen.

“We had some customers who didn’t leave their house for weeks,” Mrs Priest said.

They see their job as a service. They’ve been called on to change a light bulb or start a whipper snipper and their customers are always up for a chat. One of Mrs Priest’s runners one night discovered an elderly lady had had a fall when he could hear noises in the darkened home.

“It’s a real community service,” Mrs Priest said.

The pair say their customers are “awesome”.

“I have a great storage of wines and spirits that I get at Christmas time and chocolates and biscuits for the boys, for the runners. So, yeah, my people are appreciative of what we’re doing. Let’s hope we can continue, hey?” Mr Clift said.

Last month, 14 of our dairy farms in Maine, as well as dozens of dairy farms across northern New England, got an unexpected and disappointing notice from Danone of North America saying that they were discontinuing their contracts with our organic dairy farmers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and elsewhere.

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