More Than Just Milk

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Grace Ellis
/ Categories: Farming and Enterprise

After the Sri Lankan war ended in 2009, many farming family’s living in northern Sri Lanka lost family members, making it difficult for them to maintain their work in the rice fields. This meant they had to look at other ways to make a living.

Nine years after the war ended, Ross Wallis, a sixth-generation Waikato dairy farmer from Raglan found himself helping 4,500 poor dairy farmers in Sri Lanka through Tearfund, as part of a post-war dairy recovery project. Ross always had a passion for missions, but using his skills in dairy farming didn’t fit his vision of doing missions until now.

Even though Ross grew up on a dairy farm, he never thought he’d be a dairy farmer. In fact, he swore he would never be one. He and his wife Shayney always had a heart for missions. They worked for Youth with a Mission (YWAM) for nine years from 1990-1999. Ross’s father had just bought another dairy farm and needed some help. After they had finished their time with YWAM, they worked on his father’s farm. What was supposed to be for a few months turned into 20 years!

Over this period, Ross grew to love dairy farming. “I could see the results of it beyond just milking cows. It was the business of dairy farming I really enjoyed and fell in love with.”


Ross Wallis visiting the dairy project in Sri Lanka


Their dairy farm supplies to Fonterra and Ross was elected to join the Fonterra Shareholders Council. “I was asked to go to Sri Lanka because our farm supplies milk to the Te Rapa factory. From there, the Anchor product goes to Sri Lanka as milk powder.” He and his wife were asked to film an advertisement about what Fonterra was doing in Sri Lanka. A couple of staff from Tearfund saw the ad. Tearfund’s chief executive Ian McInnes met with Ross to see if he wanted to be a part of Tearfund’s dairy project.

“He (Ian) sat down with us and explained what they were doing in Sri Lanka. The lightbulb came on for us. It tied our passion for missions with dairy farming.”

What Ross loved about the project was how co-operatives, the *New Zealand Aid and Tearfund are working together to make things happen. “This is how it should be done—I love the partnership concept. The impact it is having on people’s lives is tremendous.”

Ross had heard about the war in Sri Lanka but he didn’t realise how many farmers were displaced by the war and returned to their land with nothing. The Sri Lankan civil war killed around 90,000 and internally displaced about 280,000 in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 2009.

Before the war, the majority of farmers in Sri Lanka were subsistence farmers, living below the poverty line. Their income they’d receive from working in the rice fields wasn’t nearly enough and many farmers were in debt. Working in the rice fields was very unpredictable too, especially with the effects of climate change.

Many families had one or two cows, but the cows were a way to get protein and milk for their curries, never as a reliable source for income.


A remnant from the war. The Sri Lankan civil war killed around 90,000 and internally displaced about 280,000.


In the north of Sri Lanka, people are very traditional, so working in the rice fields is a man’s job and milking the cows is a woman’s job. More than 30 per cent of homes in the north of Sri Lanka lost a man in the household and the women didn’t know how to work in the rice fields. This left few ways for some women to earn an income for their families.

This is where Tearfund’s dairy project came in. It was a way to rebuild communities and people’s dignity and pride, giving them back what they had lost.

The project started eight years ago with just eight farmers producing 150L of milk a month. Now, 4,500 farmers are producing 500,000L a month. That’s more than a 3000% increase!

Tearfund was looking for some New Zealand dairy farmers to support the programme, this is when they found Ross. Ross didn’t realise how effective Tearfund’s dairy project was until he saw it and decided to get involved.

“I’m just a Kiwi dairy farmer. I’m just sharing what I know. It’s really simple stuff about feeding cows, keeping them watered. Giving farmers the vision of what their future could look like."

“Rather than just having a cow for their personal use, they can turn dairy farming into a full-time job and make a living out of it.”

Ross first visited the programme in November 2018. While he was there he met a man who was without hope. His cow wasn’t producing milk. It was underfed and skinny. He’d had advice from local vets on what to do, but the advice he received didn’t help him and his cow ended up dying. He was devastated and felt ready to give up.

“It showed me that if we just give the right amount of support to farmer’s dairy farming could be successful in years to come,” Ross said.

After his cow died, the programme provided him with a replacement cow and he was put in touch with a model farmer. A model farmer goes to the project’s training centre to learn the right skills, goes back to their farms, implements what they have learnt, then they become a model farmer and teach others to do the same. He thought he was doing everything right until he was told it was wrong. All he needed was someone to come along beside him.

“For me, getting involved was a no brainer. Probably the best money we’ve ever invested in people’s lives.”

“My milk’s been going to Sri Lanka for over 40 years from the Waikato. I think we owe it to them. This is a huge opportunity for dairy farmers to give back.” Ross and his wife have been giving $300 a month to the project for over four years.

“I believe in tithing and giving. I tithe 10% and I give 10%. My $300 automatically becomes $600 because *New Zealand Aid doubles it."

“We have created something that is ongoing and self-sustaining. Our role is to make sure that the infrastructure from governance to management will be ongoing for generations to come,” Ross said.

“Just seeing the lights come back into their eyes, they have a spark of life, because now they know they can do it.”


Do you want to join Ross and be a part of helping lift Sri Lankan dairy farmers out of poverty?

Come along to our Artisan Cheese event hosted by Master of Cheese Juliet Harbutt in Christchurch on the 17th and Wanaka on the 19th of March. Attendees will enjoy a selection of New Zealand's finest artisan cheeses, expertly paired with local wines, along with salads and desserts. Ross Wallis is one of our guest speakers, he'll be sharing his experiences visiting our partner and his expertise.


Buy tickets for the Wanaka event here:


Buy tickets for the Christchurch event here:



*Yugashakthi is part of the SAFE programme. Jointly funded by Tearfund and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the SAFE Programme is a five-year programme of work that aims to ensure vulnerable households in Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are protected from modern slavery and are economically self-sufficient.



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