STATE Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh yesterday promised south-west dairy farmers he would convene a top-level meeting of bankers to highlight the industry’s financial crisis.
He also pledged to speak soon with dairy processors to seek their assistance in averting a looming farmer exodus.
A dozen farmers and consultants from across the region met Mr Walsh and other MPs yesterday at DemoDairy near Terang to press their case for urgent government assistance.
They warned the future of dairying was at stake with many farmers sinking in crippling debt as costs outweigh returns, young people become increasingly reluctant to enter the industry and associated local businesses struggle to survive in a tough rural economy.
Farm gate milk prices have fallen from more than 50 cents a litre in 2007 to about 35 cents this year while costs have soared.
Yesterday’s meeting followed the formation of the Farmer Power lobby group two weeks ago, when more than 600 people attended a short-notice meeting at Noorat, and another meeting last week addressed by outspoken Queensland MP Bob Katter.
Another crisis meeting will be held tonight at Koroit when the lobby group leaders will address delegates from the Victorian Farmers’ Federation and United Dairyfarmers of Victoria.
Mr Walsh came to hear their concerns yesterday, along with South West Coast MP and Regional Cities Minister Denis Napthine, fellow state MPs David O’Brien, Simon Ramsay and David Koch and federal Wannon MP Dan Tehan.
“We’ve heard clearly the significance and extent of the problems and the impact on farms and towns,” Dr Napthine said.
“We are willing to help directly and indirectly and take issues up with the federal government.
“This industry is not only vital for the south-west and the port of Melbourne, but to the world.”
He urged the lobby group and farmer organisations to compile a list of key issues to put to the government and said the “collective wisdom” of farmers, bankers and processors was needed to solve the crisis.
Mr Walsh said he would ask banking leaders to take a longer-term view when dealing with debt-laden dairy farmers.
He also promised to write to federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig and talk with dairy company leaders at next month’s Gardiner Foundation meeting in Melbourne.
Mr Tehan called for restrictions on minimum working hours for farmhands to be halved from three hours.
Former UDV chairman and Colac farmer Doug Chant said there was an urgency for assistance soon to avert a mass exodus.
He estimated 20 per cent of south-west dairy farmers were in “real trouble” and another 20 per cent were at “great risk”
“The domino effect would be really significant, not just in this area but Australia-wide,” Mr Chant said. “Ideally, farmers should be paid at least 60 cents a litre to make a viable living and return on their investments.”