Sustainable and cheap food: how does a farmer get there?

On the path to slow food

Slow food versus cheap food conundrum for farmers

Quality food, lowered emissions, biodiversity, soil health, maximum animal welfare, cheap food. So many messages coming from consumer groups, so many implications for how we farm.

Slow Food Australia has a philosophy that resonates with me as a farmer:

“SLOW Food fosters community awareness of food that is good, clean and fair – that the food we eat tastes good and should be good for us; that it is grown and made in ways that respect animals, the environment and our health; and that the producers who grow or create it should be fairly rewarded for their endeavour.

Slow Food Australia’s website also carries a media release that says, “Almost $40 of every $100 spent by Australian households now lands in the cash registers of either Coles or Woolworths”. In light of the milk wars, this is a worrying statistic. While Coles denies the price cuts will be passed on to farmers, Woolworths admits they will. Even consumer advocate group, Choice, agrees farmers will bear the brunt. It’s hard to imagine that any company wielding that amount of market power won’t put pressure on suppliers to lower costs, which will inevitably flow on to those with the least market power – farmers.

The milk wars will have their greatest impact on farmers in states like Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales but the story is no more rosy in my state, Victoria. According to official figures, most of the state’s dairy farms have a return on investment of 1 to 3 per cent, forcing a focus on financial survival.

Our farm is similarly affected. We want to improve the farm, so Wayne and I are both holding down second jobs. The plan is that these improvements will make the farm more profitable and sustainable. We are making progress but farm life is currently anything but sustainable from a personal point of view. You just can’t work this many hours forever.

So what’s the answer? For our family farm, in the short-term, it means no compromise on milk quality or animal welfare, while planting as many trees as we can afford. At the same time, we invest in anything that will make the farm more efficient and profitable.

In the long term, it means incorporating more and more organic principles into our farming methods and marketing our own milk directly to consumers who appreciate what we’re trying to achieve. The problem is that none of this comes cheaply and is out of the reach of most farmers (including us, right now).

If consumers really do care about sustainable food, driving prices “Down, down, down” is not the way to make it happen.

2 thoughts on “Sustainable and cheap food: how does a farmer get there?

  1. You’ve raised some really interesting points. It’s all about how you get people being prepared to pay for what they tell you they want. I use slowfood principles in my cafe (local meat, produce, cook things from scratch), but find that I can’t charge more for it because everyone is a bargain hunter at heart. My reward comes from the goodwill that the good tasting food generates that means that people keep coming back.

    With regard to your situation, I’m not sure where your milk goes, but look for ways to make value added produce (creme fraiche springs to mind – it is really hard to find-, butter etc) that can attract a premium. Above all, keep up the good fight!


    • Thanks for your encouragement, Cathy. It’s great to hear that you are practising the slow food principles but a shame that you’re not seeing an immediate financial reward for that extra effort. I bet they’re loyal customers!

      I have found a niche for sure. The difficulty is raising the capital, jumping through the food safety hoops and finding the time to value-add. The farm has to come first and it gets all-consuming!


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