Is Woolies the dairy farmer’s white knight?

Woolworths has announced it plans to contract dairy farmers directly, with the promise of better farm gate returns. While a first for Australian dairy, this is not new in the UK where many of our supermarket executives earned their stripes. On a study tour of the UK, prominent Victorian dairy farmer Roma Britnell spoke to many English farmers about their experiences, so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions for Milk Maid Marian.

Roma Britnell

Roma Britnell

MMM: What are the supermarkets proposing?
Roma: The supermarkets are thinking about setting up direct supply contracts with a select group of farmers in response to the public’s concerns that they are hurting farmers.

I saw a really good example of this in England after coops failed and processing companies became dominant. The supply contract I looked at was with Waitrose, a boutique up-market supermarket. Only a small number of farmers had the opportunity and got a few cents more than the rest of the English dairy farmers. They have to have a very flat supply and the quality standards are very demanding.

When I first explored this concept, the farmers were not too unhappy. Now, the supermarket’s demands are getting too difficult to accommodate. A lot depends on the relationship between the negotiators of the group and the company manager but because the group is small, the farmers are at a disadvantage.

MMM: Is this common overseas?
Roma: I didn’t see this anywhere other than in the UK. What I did see and look for were ways the farmer could maintain influence up the supply chain. I found the answer was simply to own as much of the supply chain as possible so long as this was managed efficiently and monitored carefully.

This is what has traditionally gone wrong, and the “co-op” model is wrongly blamed as the reason instead of the inefficiency and lack of the owners (farmers) making sure the business performed.

Co operation comes in many forms and I looked at companies like Glambia that are part co-op and part company.

I found many good businesses that were going well operating as a co-op, including Arla. Neither co ops or companies are immune from failure. The management rather than the structure is key. On the other hand, the farmers that sit on co op boards need to be highly skilled business operators at an international level.

MMM: What do you expect will be the opportunities and threats for dairy farmers who contract directly with the supermarkets?
Roma: The farmers who have a direct supply contract will earn more than the rest of Australia’s dairy farmers. Eventually, however, the increased costs are likely to match the added reward.

Consumers will buy the milk believing they are doing the “right thing” by dairy farmers but the reality is that direct supermarket contracts are rarely truly in the farmer’s favour. As with all things, the ones in early will initially get some benefits short-term but long-term it’s unlikely to be the case.

Such a small group of farmers has little chance of negotiating on an equal footing – brute strength is needed to deal with giants the size of Australia’s supermarkets.

MMM: What are the opportunities and threats for Australian dairy farming as a whole?
Roma: This opportunity for a favoured few poses enormous threats to Australian dairy. If the English experience is repeated here, the often unrealistic demands supermarkets impose on their contracted farmers will become the norm over time. They will say its customer driven. Its supermarket driven; to get the edge on their competitor and in turn the long-term costs to the industry are too large to keep the industry viable. Do we need more of this?

There are many other threats that take a long-term view of the situation to consider.
However the principle remains that dairy farmers are individual businesses who seem to struggle to work as a team. If we did, we would have the clout to position ourselves ready for the oncoming food boom. It has been a long time since the demand for food was greater than the supply. Dairy industries around the world are positioning themselves in readiness for this. Us …well I don’t think we are going to be in a position ready to pounce. Sad really to miss opportunity but a good strong group of focused farmers would be the way to achieve success.

My last comment to demonstrate my findings is cemented from my experience just this week whilst in New Zealand. The country has a minimal domestic market with a strong, well organised cooperative that exports a large amount of milk. So very like Australia in that respect. Yet they have the highest domestic milk price of any country in the world. Go figure!

2 thoughts on “Is Woolies the dairy farmer’s white knight?

  1. The NZ system is changing. Fonterra no longer has to supply other manufacturers at favorable prices, so it is expected those companies will seek direct supply.
    I seem to recall there was recently some public unrest about the domestic liquid milk price in NZ.
    As Roma pointed out, it will only be the small number of direct suppliers who will benefit from any premium, and likely only in the initial phase as they attract supply.
    Whichever way it is cut, milk pricing is dominated by the Spring export price in Vic and every other use will asymptote towards this price plus freight plus a bit to secure supply.


  2. Pingback: Woolies the white knight unmasked by dairy defenders | The Milk Maid Marian

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