Norco dairy co-op rebuilds for future flood resilience

‘When I see all the staff back in the room, seeing old faces, it’s nice, it’s a really good feeling’

As climate change threatens an increase in extreme weather events, more attention is turning to disaster resilience.

One co-op which found itself on the frontline of is Australian farmer-owned dairy Norco, whose ice cream factory was devastated when record-breaking floods tore through the city of Lismore in New South Wales in February 2022.

The factory re-opened last month after extensive reconstruction work, completed in just 12 months, and is running at full production, employing 130 people.

Covering 10,800m2, the factory sits on 2.279 hectares of land and runs 24/7, five days a week and can produce around 42 million litres of ice cream per year.

Alongside Norco brands, it produces ice cream for other businesses, including five major retail customers in Australia and overseas.

And it forms a vital source of income to farmers in the region who were also hit hard by the floods. Some family farms have been left with reconstruction bills of AU$3m.

“Anytime someone chooses to buy Norco, every cent goes back to supporting our farmer members,” said co-op CEO Michael Hampson. “Seeing Norco-branded ice-cream back on supermarket shelves offers a strong sign of positivity for those farmers who have been doing it tough in recent times.”

The co-op itself suffered the loss of millions of dollars worth of stock during the flood, with staff fighting a valiant battle to save the site from being inundated.

Paying tribute to them after the flood, Hampson told ABC News: “We had some people that were stationed at the ice-cream facility and they were fighting an adversary that they just couldn’t win against.

“The courage of these people was fantastic trying to keep the ice-cream facility and the flood doors in place, but in the end it was just too much.”

Related: Australia’s Norco dairy survives catastrophic flood to post $9.1m profit

Since then, the business has faced a long, hard road to recovery. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster it conducted a headcount of its team and put in emergency measures to make sure they had food and a place to stay. 

It then set up a Go Fund Me page for employees and farmers, raising $109,794.15 as at 28 June, “100% of which has been directly distributed to those in need to support the rebuild and recovery process”.

Norco also engaged with businesses in the area to find alternative job options for staff.

Reconstruction work was then hit by delays from the Covid-19 pandemic in China, which held up the delivery of critical electrical equipment.

The decision to rebuild at the original location on the bank of Wilson’s River also prompted local concerns over the risk of future floods, but Hampson said it would have cost another $100m to relocate – money the co-op did not have.

Instead, Norco says it is confident the reconstructed site has adequate flood defences. Helped by a $46m in funding from federal and NSW government, the rebuild offers resilience to a 15-metre level, which is higher than the floods of 2022,

New flood defences include an electronic engine room located above the 2022 flood levels, and a submarine-style room, with reinforced concrete walls and support arms, where millions of litres of ice cream can be stored.

The work, which also installed new automated processes and additional production lines, drew on the skills of local traders, with contracts awarded to Northern Rivers service providers where possible. As one of the biggest employers in the region, Norco says its revival will “continue to drive significant economic activity, helping to support the ongoing recovery efforts of small and medium businesses within the Lismore community, as they too continue to rebuild almost twelve months on from the major flooding event.”

While the work progressed, CEO Michael Hampson said: “After the damage it incurred, rebuilding the ice cream facility has been no small feat.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both the Norco workforce and our construction partners for all they’ve achieved on the rebuild.”

He added “Norco operates a number of businesses beyond just ice cream, all of which are in growth phases and performing well.

“The Norco milk brand, through its continued customer support, is the number one growing mainstream brand in Australia, and we will continue our focus on NPD to bring high quality Norco branded products to our loyal customers.”

In a film put out by Norco to celebrate the re-opening, senior production co-ordinator Josh Sawtell said: “I think it is extremely important for the community, it does give us that bit of hope that Lismore does still have a future and we’re going to come back bigger and stronger than ever.

“We can move forward from a flood now leave everything in the past and keep growing as we do.”

Jess Anderson, senior production coordinator, added: “We’re very fortunate to be able to support a lot of locals in the area. The addition of secure local jobs in the area is very much needed and adds a bit of hope for the future of not only Norco but Lismore itself. 

Electrical coordinator Glenn Macintosh said: “Everyone’s worn all the hats that they needed to, to get it done. 

“I’m really, really proud of it, and every single person that’s been has been working on it. When I see all the staff back in the room, seeing old faces, it’s nice, it’s a really good feeling.”

The work required a huge effort by staff and contractors who recognised the plant’s value to the community, said engineering manager Derrick Duignan. “Without that effort, we wouldn’t be standing here full stop.”