OPINION: Passion and emotion overflow in dairy debate

About 600 people packed a meeting at Noorat this week in response to a perceived dairy farming crisis. From it came a new lobby group, Farmer Power, protests outside supermarkets which sell milk at below the cost of production and intense debate about the industry’s peak bodies. But young Grassmere dairy farmer LIAM RYAN offers a voice of reason.

THERE has been a plethora of media coverage this week on all the things that are going wrong in the dairy industry - low milk prices, rising input costs, a dwindling ageing farming group, lack of support from industry bodies and, most famously, the cheap milk available at a couple of well-known supermarkets.

However, quite unfortunately, as is the case with most emotional subjects, there are a lot of assumptions, half-truths and falsehoods being peddled around. The meeting on Monday night was a classic example of this — plenty of emotion and passion for the industry, concern as to how we are all going to survive, but for all the noise and discussion it was concerning to see that the price of discounted milk and the perceived lack of industry support were two of the main topics raised and falsely portrayed as main contributors to this current difficult year.

Yes, the milk price is low, but not as low as it has been in the past and there’s a fair chance it will be lower some time in the future. As we are mostly exporting our product, more than 70 per cent, the price is set by the world market. The price fluctuates, always has, always will. Simple supply and demand.

In regard to input costs, the same applies. Some years are better than others. It’s the nature of all agricultural industries.

As for subsidies, well if you can show me an example in Australia or a comparable country where subsidies have had a positive impact, I’d be surprised — they are generally an invitation for complacency or a delay of the inevitable. Check out the Australian car manufacturing industry.

As for the dwindling number and rising age of farmers, yes, I agree it is happening. In my opinion the most obvious reason is young peoples’ expectations of what a job should be like — 9-to-5 hours, sick leave, holidays etc. Affordable entry-level farms are small family farms (80-150 cows) and they are disappearing as the aforementioned expected working conditions don’t apply. The fact is that these working conditions do exist in this industry. Medium to large farms employ many people on flexible hours with good pay. Unfortunately, we fail to sell ourselves as a desirable workplace where a rewarding and enjoyable career can be had!

As for the industry bodies, they in my opinion cop plenty of unwarranted flak. The two most well-known and widely knocked are the United Dairy Farmers of Victoria (UDV) and Dairy Australia. The UDV is a representative body for dairy farmers in Victoria. 

Their primary objective is to get local issues heard at a state level as well as being a sure pathway to access representatives from local councils, milk factories or other government organisations. The majority of the people in this organisation volunteer their time and do a huge amount of crucial work on our behalf. 

As for Dairy Australia, it is a research and development organisation, not a marketing body, partly funded by the government and partly by us farmers. They are a key part of the reason why we have one of the lowest-cost, environmentally sound and efficient dairy industries in the world. We need to continue to support Dairy Australia through the levy — not blindly but wholly — without this research and development there will be no viable industry as we will fall behind our global competitors.

As for the discounted milk, the less said about this the better. It affects about eight per cent of the milk produced in Victoria and therefore I find it hard to comprehend how this is the cause of all of our problems. The simple fact of the matter is that our milk companies are the ones that sell it to the supermarkets. If you don’t want discounted milk, don’t let your factory sell unbranded milk. Maybe a few more relevant issues to focus on would be the Aussie dollar, free-trade agreements, transport costs and the efficiency of our milk factories — overstaffed, over-capitalised? 

The way I see it, the more we talk about this issue the more free advertising we provide for the supermarkets and the great deals they’ve got on milk. There are many issues that need careful consideration, discussion and robust debate that do and will continue to affect the dairy industry, some more pressing than others. 

However it’s not a time for panic, or crisis meetings, or blockades of supermarkets. Rather, it’s a time to re-engage with industry bodies such as the UDV and help the people who do a huge amount of work helping us. 

Before you howl me down as a UDV supporter, ask yourself these two questions: are you a member? And if so, how many meetings have you attended and made a meaningful contribution to in the last 12 months?

If the people who attended on Monday are the same as me they wouldn’t have attended any meetings, let alone contributed to them. I therefore find it extremely hard to listen to people criticise these organisations when, 1) they haven’t tried to contribute to them and 2) they often don’t properly understand what their actual purpose is. 

It would be interesting to know how much time and effort the committee members of the newly-formed Farmer Power have endeavoured to contribute to their local UDV branch over the years. 

This, in my view, is a very worthwhile question to them in light of all the criticisms they have directed towards the people who have contributed. However, the meeting has been had and it was fantastic to see so many people interested in attending. It also has presented the industry with a fantastic opportunity to unite (Farmer Power and the UDV) and discuss and debate these issues and move the industry forward, together in one direction. When we get together in numbers the wider community do take notice and to a certain extent understand some of the difficulties we face. 

However, we shouldn’t plead for their pity or expect them to understand our way of life. After all, we chose to be farmers and we can choose not to be whenever we want. Perhaps instead we should encourage them to buy and enjoy our produce and, if they can afford to, look to the shelf above or below the home brand milk. 

It’s our industry and our responsibility to move it forward. It is an industry that is full of hard-working, knowledgeable people who are only too happy to represent us through the appropriate channels. This is not a time to divide further but to unite together to strive for a common goal — a rewarding, sustainable industry that the younger generation are encouraged to become part of and that the older generation are excited to hand on.

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