THE original dairy — which he established in the 1800s — might be long gone, but the imprint of pioneering dairy farmer James Burleigh remains on this Nullawarre farm today.
Pine trees he planted to provide shelter for the cows remain, while a majestic palm tree stands like a sentry in front of the property’s pretty timber farmhouse.
James Burleigh may have died in the 1960s, but five decades on his great-grandson Jason Burleigh continues the family tradition — dairy farming on the productive plains beside the Great Ocean Road. Jason is the fourth generation of the family to farm here and live in its farmhouse.
Jason is also the fourth generation, after great-grandfather James, grandfather Crawford and father Noel to supply local processor Warrnambool Cheese and Butter with milk. The Burleighs have supplied “Warrnambool Cheese’’ since it was established 125 years ago — a record matched only by a few others.
The family’s long association with the company — which is now the subject of intense takeover activity — gives it an acute perspective on the battle for control of Warrnambool Cheese.
Jason Burleigh, 33, believes the strong interest in WCB — Australian dairy processors Murray Goulburn, Bega and Canada’s Saputo are fighting for it — is good promotion and “a positive’’ for the industry. “They obviously see that Warrnambool Cheese and Butter is a profitable company,’’ he said.
The takeover intrigue rose further on Friday when New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra confirmed it had bought a six per cent stake in Bega.
Mr Burleigh has a small holding of WCB shares, so has watched bemused as their value has spiked in recent weeks, trading at $8.24 mid-afternoon on Friday. In the year to October 31, WCB shares have jumped 127 per cent.
Yet he also finds the corporate fight for WCB somewhat frustrating. “Six months ago (the existing) factories couldn’t pay farmers any more money,’’ he said.
“All the companies said there’s no money around, that’s the most that we can pay you.
“And there were a lot of guys hurting. And then six months down the track — bang — these companies have got $450 million that they want to throw into our company,’’ he said.
“This money has just all of a sudden appeared.
“That’s where it really has got up my nose …
“There’s still farmers going broke at the moment.’’
Mr Burleigh’s preference is for Saputo’s bid to be successful, although he believes that Saputo’s Canadian ownership might be a “stumbling block’’ to regulators and shareholders.
“It’s going to be a hard one to get across the line,’’ he said.
But Mr Burleigh does not mind that Saputo is foreign-owned, referring to the presence of other foreign operations in local agriculture, like New Zealand’s Fonterra.
A Saputo takeover would also ensure that south-west dairy farmers still had the choice of four different processors to supply milk to: Saputo, Bega, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra.
But a successful takeover by Murray Goulburn or Bega would reduce competition by reducing the number of processors, he said.
Like Mr Burleigh, fellow WCB supplier John McConnell also prefers Saputo.
“I think it has to be Saputo,” Mr McConnell said.
‘‘It’s nice to think that it could stay in Australian hands, but I think the reality is that the Australian companies are in a little bit too much debt to buy it.
‘‘I fear for the farm-gate price if Murray Goulburn and perhaps Bega buy Warrnambool Cheese.’’
Mr McConnell said a strong new entrant could give the Australian dairy industry the shake-up he says many farmers believe it needs.
“It will upset the pecking order that we seem to have in the industry at the moment,’’ he said.
- THE AGE