WHEN Nazzarena Tomaino, better known as ‘Reno’, arrived in Australia at age 15, with his father Ross, on November 7, 1966, looking to make a new life for the family in a brave new world, he could have just as easily turned around and gone home.
He didn’t know anyone apart from his uncle in Korumburra, he couldn’t understand anyone and he copped a fair bit of abuse.
The idea of an adventure on the other side of the world soon soured.
“It was a real struggle to be honest with you,” said Reno.
“Although we were poor back in Italy, we were raised to respect other people and I couldn’t see why you’d pick on someone else just because they were different.
“It seemed like there was a lot of bigotry back then but of course later I realised it was only by an ignorant few.
“But yes, initially I just wanted to go home.”
In the end though, it was Reno’s father who went back home to Italy after his mum and Reno’s younger brother had initially joined them in Australia only to find they couldn’t live away from his four sisters.
“I could have gone back too but I made the decision to stay and it was the right decision for me,” he said.
And without his input, the dairy industry in South Gippsland would not have reached the heights that it has, notwithstanding the problems lately.
Burra Foods supremo, Grant Cruthers, said as much on the occasion of Reno’s retirement on January 6 this year.
But it all started from humble beginnings, with a young Italian family looking for a way out of the post-war poverty in Vibo Valentia, a small town in the region of Calabria, in southern Italy.
“Dad got a job at SGMI (South Gippsland Milk Industries) as a gardener. I applied too but they said I was too young. The second day I was here, they took me out picking peas. The closest I’d ever been to peas before was eating cooked peas off a plate.
“I then went to Melbourne and worked at the Clifton Hill brick factory stacking bricks ready to be fired in the kiln. They were really heavy but the boss said he’d pay me adult wages because I was doing the same work as them.”
After six months, Reno came back to Korumburra where he got a job working for the Wonthaggi construction company owned by the Johnston brothers, building a storage room at the Korumburra milk factory, that’s still there today.
It was to be his first foothold in the dairy industry and led to him being offered a job making wooden butter boxes for export.
“I started with SGMI on July 24, 1967, a job that was only supposed to last three months, but I was still in the industry locally almost 50 years later – almost 35 years at Murray Goulburn and 15 years at Burra Foods.”
Reno worked out that the best paid jobs were in the butter room so he set his sights there and after 16 months, was selected to go to the Gilbert Chandler Institute to learn how to become a butter maker.
In those days, butterfat was the only valuable part of the milk and the rest, all the liquid protein, was regarded as waste.
By the time he moved to the Leongatha factory in 1972 he was a supervisor, on his way to becoming a production manager, and having a key role to play in the revolutionary developments taking place in the spreads department.
Reno married his wife of 40 years, Sheryl, on September 4, 1976 and the couple had three children – two girls and a boy.
But Remo admits now that his job came first in many ways and initially shift work, then longer hours as a supervisor and manager kept him away from the family more than he would have liked.
But things were really moving in the dairy industry.
“We got the licence to make extra soft in Australia and we also developed the Dairy Soft idea ourselves. I spent time in the US in 1991 working on that development and also in Ireland.
“Back in Italy, I thought I would have liked to be a pilot in the Italian airforce but we couldn’t afford to go to university. I probably would have become a chemical engineer but in the end, that’s the area I worked in anyway.”
The change in the spreads area was massive for Murray Goulburn and also for Leongatha and the product development kept on coming with the development of nutritional powders, infant formulas, whole milk powders and all the rest.
“We never made cheese here but I did a course at Gilbert Chandler Institute for that as well.”
But they did put in their own blow-moulding plant for thickened cream.
By then, according to Reno, most ‘factory workers’ at Murray Goulburn were actually specialists in their field and he believes that despite the present downturn, it’s an industry that still offers a fine diversity of careers.
But after 35 years with MG, he didn’t like some of the decisions that were being made and when Burra Foods decided to reopen the old plant at Korumburra, he saw a new challenge and a chance to put something back into the town that had given him his start in Australia.
“I thought I could do something to increase employment in the town and from an initial staff of 25, we’d grown to 180 by the time I left.”
Initially as logistics and procurement manager, Reno played an important role in the rise and rise of Burra Foods, later taking on the responsibility for building milk supply from 40 million litres a year to more than 300 million litres.
But, as pleased as he is to see Burra Foods thrive, he’s still an advocate for a strong co-operative.
“I think the dairy industry has got a great future. There’ll always be volatility and there’s a lot about what’s happened in the past 18 months that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen but I think we’ll see good times again,” he said.
But he is concerned about the future of Murray Goulburn, following the erosion of supply, and what might happen to supplier payments if foreign-owned companies were left to dominate the landscape.
However those big questions are for others now.
After 50 years, Reno and Sheryl have earned their retirement and when they aren’t tending their highly productive veggie patch, they’ll be fishing, travelling around Australia, taking a trip back to see Reno’s 90 year old mum and family every 12 months and enjoying their extended family which so far extends to three grandchildren.
“I’m going to play more golf too. I really don’t know how I found time to work,” said Reno last week.
“But I was ready for this. I scaled down my work to four, three and finally two days a week in the past couple of years. You’ve got to do that.”
So it’s happy days, hard-earned days for Reno and his family now but he’s certainly left his mark on the dairy industry locally.