EDITORIAL: New saleyards would be a win for all - even agents

The future of the Warrnambool saleyards is provoking passionate debate.

The future of the Warrnambool saleyards is provoking passionate debate.

WARRNAMBOOL stock agents have had their say on the saleyards issue. They have argued their case in The Standard and at public meetings.

Their views were pushed again at Monday night’s council meeting by supporting councillors Peter Hulin and Brian Kelson.

By any measure they have had a fair go. Our reporting has been scrupulously impartial, but because this newspaper’s editor offered an opposing argument in an editorial comment we stand accused of being biased in our reporting of the issue. Not true. 

As the journalist most closely associated with the debate, I have been careful to keep my own views to myself. Not one printed word has hinted at my opinion, yet last week I was confronted at the weekly sale and hotly accused of “bias’’ so maybe it’s time to lay it on the line. I do have an opinion — I think much of what the agents say is nonsense.

Firstly there’s the claim that the saleyards make a profit. They only make a profit if you apply a very simplistic accounting system — any businessman who ran an enterprise based on such a basis would not be in business for long. The centre only keeps going because of council support.

The agents repeatedly tell us that the saleyards make $300,000 annual profit. Back in 2010 the council’s internal auditors analysed the saleyards business and concluded that the reported profit does not incorporate the full cost of the operation or a return on the assets tied up in the centre. When the full costs are factored in, along with a reasonable return on investment, the auditors estimated the centre to be losing around $900,000 annually. This means the centre actually makes a bigger loss than Flagstaff Hill and Fun4Kids Festival combined. This information is available on the council’s website.

Then there’s the prediction of a detrimental effect on surrounding businesses. The agents say the farmers who come to the saleyards will no longer support these businesses. Go to a weekly sale and how many farmers do you see? Hardly any. 

The only market that brings farmers is the monthly store sale.

Businesses may have originally located there to be close to the saleyards but the cluster of agricultural businesses now has the critical mass to ensure that Caramut Road remains the go-to place for farm supplies. Moving the saleyards would have negligible effect.

Agents tell us that the Warrnambool saleyards is ideally located. Well, any businessman located on the coast knows that their catchment area is halved by a semi-circle of ocean. An inland site at, say, Mortlake, would still be close enough to draw dairy cattle from the south and would be better placed for beef cattle from the north, while still being well linked to the important Heywood area. 

And sheep — remember them? Hamilton sells a million of them a year. This is a market virtually absent from Warrnambool. Multiple sales each week would be a real possibility.

We’re also told that yard fees would rise under private operation. Well, a private operator would certainly be wanting to make a profit, not a pretend profit, so maybe they would rise. But bear in mind that a regional centre operating several days a week would spread costs, helping to contain the costs. Whoever runs the saleyards also faces strong competition from direct selling, so they would have to remain competitive. 

Vendors might actually be better off. Big selling centres bring more buyers and that means more competition. Any movement in yard fees might well be offset by better sale prices.

The saleyards occupies not only the immediate site but a 500-metre buffer zone to the west, mostly owned by the council. This is prime development land that could bring the council a healthy return. While the saleyards are there this will remain zoned as farmland, returning almost nothing. This is a ratepayers’ asset that could be producing revenue for the city’s coffers. It’s in ratepayer interests to do something else with it.

I happen to own some of the land within the buffer zone. The agent who confronted me last week accused me of bias because of this. To put the record straight, at a personal level I would rather the saleyards stay because my property is protected from urban encroachment. I like it that way. 

Finally, there’s the matter of the yards themselves. They are ageing and a long way from modern standards in several areas. With no roof, cattle stand in direct sun on hot days and they stand wet and cold on a winter night. Two cattle died of heat stress on a hot day just this year. That’s unacceptable. The existing infrastructure is unsuitable for upgrading — replacement is the only answer.

Life would go on for agents at a new saleyards. There would still be jobs at the saleyards — probably more, farmers would benefit from more competition, people would still come to Warrnambool to shop and ratepayers would get a better return on their asset.

shynes@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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