The truth about $6 cheese

I love a supermarket bargain as much as any mum trying to balance the family budget. But there’s one I won’t be buying and that’s a 1kg block of cheese for $6. Why? To explain, Zoe and I have made a quick video to explain the ugly truth behind $6 cheese.

It we don’t value the clean, safe, high quality fresh food that draws shoppers into our supermarkets, we’ll lose it.

CheeseTitlePic

Bittersweet as Devondale milk reaches Coles shelves

Photo: The Weekly Times


Three men in suits – a prime minister, supermarket supremo and the MD of a dairy processor – stood drinking glasses of frothy cold milk on the steps of the first MG Co-op factory dedicated to supplying fresh Devondale-branded and private label milk to Coles. Beneath the froth, however, doubt among the very dairy farmers sponsoring the opening celebrations continues to simmer and bubble.

Ever since the Coles deal was announced, there have been skeptics. Plenty question whether it is possible to make money supplying milk that retails at a dollar a litre and the concept alone that milk could be priced cheaper than water offends many dairy farmers.

The speculation and anger reached new heights this week, however, after a scathing opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review that says MG managing director, “Helou ‘in a hurry’ has a reputation at MG, as he did at SunRice, for being hell bent on revenue over margins.”

The AFR also writes, “MG’s margins are non-existent and its deal has locked the whole industry into $1 milk for a whole, punishing decade, structurally squeezing the profit pool.”

All that gloom follows the journalist’s derisory comments about the Sydney factory being at least one month late, $30 million over budget and the trigger for contractual penalties that can only be imagined. And, yes, when the deal was announced, MG’s farmer shareholders were promised the factories would cost “just” $120 million. MG now puts that figure at $160 million, hinting at a cost blow-out of staggering proportions.

To top it all off, Coles ads pimping our cherished, premium Devondale-branded milk at just 75 cents per litre sent shockwaves through the Australian dairy community on Twitter yesterday.

This ad went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons

This ad went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons

So, I sent a list of questions off to MG’s executive general manager shareholder relations, Robert Poole, who to his great credit offered these explanations:

Q. What are the actual costs of the two factories?
A. Following our initial cost estimates for the two factories we decided to invest in additional capability and capacity to maximise efficiencies through automation and layout. This brought the total investment in our Melbourne and Sydney facilities to approximately $160 million. This provided for future operational cost savings.

Q. Has MG been unable to supply milk to Coles on time?
A. We have had some shortfalls, however contingency plans were promptly enacted . Laverton is ramping up towards its full capacity and at the moment is servicing Coles requirements in Victoria plus the Devondale Brand both in Victoria and NSW. Our NSW plant remains scheduled to commence production in early August, at which time MG expects to be able to be supplying all of Coles requirements in Victoria and NSW

Q. If so, what are the penalties?
A. This is a contractual matter between MG and Coles.

Q. Does MG have adequate raw milk supply for the Sydney factory now?
A. In New South Wales, we have already sourced more than 180 million litres of milk. This is more than enough to cover our initial requirements of approximately 100 million litres per annum in this market and allows for future growth.

Q. When do you expect the Sydney facility to be supplying milk Coles with its full requirement of milk?
A. The site is being commissioned through July with production scheduled to commence early August, reaching full capacity by the end of August.

Q. When will the investment break even?
A. Both sites are forecast to add positively to MG’s farmgate price from year 1.

If the Murray Goulburn deal with Coles can withstand a 33% cost-overrun and Coles’ penalties while adding to the milk price from year one, this must be an extraordinarily lucrative contract indeed. Who would have thought the Down, Down, Down folks could be so generous?

While you’re chewing that over, take a minute to look at the new Devondale ads via my fellow dairy blogger Lynne Strong, who tells me her post discussing the commercials has gone viral attracting around 1500 views in 24 hours. MG cannot be accused of being boring!

Has the MG co-op fed Aussie dairy farmers to the wolves?

If $1 milk is unsustainable, how is the Coles deal locking in pricing with Murray Goulburn a good thing? Good question. Has MG made a giant mistake? Will it mean a mass exodus by NSW dairy farmers and will the big co-op do its socks on the deal, taking the hopes of dairy farmers down, down, down with it? Blair Speedy of The Australian certainly seems to think so.

I decided to ask some rather blunt questions of two men in the know: independent dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque and Murray Goulburn big-wig and general manager shareholder relations, Robert Poole.

1. How can MG make a profit supplying fresh milk to Coles if Lion could not?
Robert Poole refused to comment on Lion’s circumstances but said the co-op’s new factories would be “purpose-built, state of the art and the most efficient milk processing plants in Australia”.

“We will make a good return supplying Coles and will have the capacity to supply other customers in time, too, making even higher returns.”

Jon Hauser goes further. “I can see how 10 cents per litre in costs can readily be taken out of the chain,” he says. “There is a view in the dairy community that milk should be sold for more than a dollar per litre when it’s being sold cheaper than that right now in the USA and the United Kingdom. The local processors have been retaining much more of the milk dollar than international processors.”

2. What risk is there to the $120 million of farmers’ funds that will be spent on the new factories?
Poole says quite flatly that the cost of the factories is well and truly covered by the 10-year Coles contract: “We have total security. There will be no cross-subsidisation of this investment – it will be fully funded by the agreement with Coles.”.

3. Why hasn’t MG sold fresh milk into supermarkets before?
“Historically, we would have had to submit a tender for milk supply. And what, build factories in the hope that we won?,” says Poole. “This was a golden opportunity. Nobody gets a 10-year contract like this but Coles came to Murray Goulburn because it wanted to work with farmers.”

4. How does it work for MG?
According to Poole: “Under the supply agreement, the price to Coles is based on a farm-gate price and the cost of processing plus a comfortable profit margin. There’s a rise and fall clause that means the price reflects the changing value of the milk on international markets.”

Hauser explains that the New Zealand and Australian dairy industries are “price takers”, unlike the Europeans and Americans, who have greater control over pricing.

“Australia can’t control the export price but, reading between the lines, Murray Goulburn is using the Coles deal to increase its control over the price it gets for its milk and will position itself for a much greater role in the 2 billion-litre fresh milk market. Because MG will slash the cost of delivering fresh milk to supermarkets, I predict the co-op will be selling supermarkets a billion litres of fresh milk a year by 2023.”

“Aside from milk, the deal also allows MG to range its cheese, butter and spreads in Coles, which makes it even more attractive.”

5. Has the Coles and Murray Goulburn deal devalued milk?
Poole was ever the diplomat on this one, saying the retail price of milk was “up to the supermarkets”. Hauser is a tad more direct. “For people to say milk will be devalued is absolute rubbish,” he says. “This is a great deal for MG’s farmer members. Is it MG’s responsibility to stay out of the market and let nonsense economics run the show?”

6. How will this affect NSW dairy farmers?
Hauser says many NSW dairy farmers will need to reassess their businesses. Milk price in both NSW and Victoria will be based on a mixture of domestic and export value with the export market being a major driver of that value.

The man himself, Robert Poole, says the NSW price will reflect “supply and demand, international prices and a premium that takes into account the added costs associated with supplying exact volumes of milk every month of the year”.

Will it shake up the NSW dairy sector, with its large number of very small farms? Undoubtedly, says Hauser. “NSW’s dairy farmers sold themselves into trouble when they handed over the responsibility for, and the value of, their products to private processors, who have no interest in their viability. Ironically, it is a Victorian farmer cooperative that is now reclaiming control in NSW.”

7. Why should Australians buy Devondale fresh milk rather than Coles homebrand milk?
“That you’ll have to wait and see,” teases Poole. “Seriously, it’s up to us to place Devondale in the market carefully, with the right price, packaging and provenance and other benefits that will appeal to shoppers.”

It’s even confused the Chaser team at The Checkout

Last night’s episode of The Checkout tackled the supermarket milk war in all its bewildering glory. They did a pretty good job but I reckon even the very clever Craig Reucassel got a little confused.

The problem with The Checkout’s closing argument is this: while processors don’t pay farmers more for each litre of branded milk they sell, they do pay farmers less when there is less money to go around (as Craig mentioned). So, when the processors sell less branded milk at lower margins because of the stiff competition from homebrand milk, they have to cut their costs.

Now, if you were a multinational processor, would it be easier to protect your profits by negotiating a better deal with the duopoly or simply tell dairy farmers that the price of milk had fallen? You guessed right, and they did, with disastrous consequences for farmers in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia in particular.

In other words, if you are among the one in four Aussies who buys branded milk, good on you! Until Murray Goulburn and Norco get their new efficient and 100% farmer-owned factories operating in Sydney and Brisbane, the $1 supermarket milk war will continue to hurt farmers in those states. Sadly, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for farmers in WA and the milk supply there is so small now that it’s being trucked across the Nullabor to keep Perth going. There is a real possibility that UHT will become the new norm there, as it is in many parts of Europe.

The second area of confusion for The Checkout comes in its update about the MG deal with Coles. Here’s an extract:

“Coles is currently run by a coterie of former Tesco employees so it is perhaps unsurprising that this latest step mimics the approach in the UK. British supermarkets have moved to contract with farmers and cut the margin the processors make. This has led to higher farm gate prices for the farmers contracting with Tesco – but also more expensive requirements for them. Similarly, a lot of additional costs are expected for Australian farmers collectives, with Murray Goulburn spending $120 million on milk processing plants.”

The additional costs that come with Tesco deals are not in processing plants. It’s in on-farm compliance costs as Tesco dictates some aspects of how the small number of contracted farms are run.

In our case, the Coles deal is with the farmer-owned processor, Murray Goulburn, and nobody is talking about Coles making demands about the colour I paint my dairy door or how I raise my calves. Why is it different? A handful of (relatively powerless) farmers supply Tesco direct (and Woolies under its new Farmers Own scheme) whereas Coles is picking on someone closer to its own size in Murray Goulburn, which boasts annual revenues of $2.29 billion.

Co-operatives have never looked so vital to the survival of Australian farmers and the ability of Australians to take fresh food for granted.

Coles has forged this deal with MG because, contrary to Craig’s opinion, Australians aren’t stupid. They know $1 milk is not sustainable and they’ve started voting with their wallets: yes, the share of homebrand milk is falling.

This is a huge win for the little people of Australia – dairy farmers and milk drinkers alike. We truly are what we eat.

The co-op does a deal with the devil and keeps its soul

I never thought I’d say this but some of my milk will be sold on Coles’ shelves in both homebrand and Devondale cartons from next year. And I’m pleased.

You see, the co-op we supply, Murray Goulburn, is a giant too. It processes around 35 per cent of Australia’s milk and earns $1.17 billion in exports, making MG one of the largest container exporters from the Port of Melbourne. In other words, it doesn’t have to sell to Coles and Woolies, giving it much greater leverage with the supermarket duopoly. It also has the scale needed to be an efficient processor. Most importantly, its number one goal as a 100% farmer owned co-op is to maintain the profitability of its farmers.

All the same, it is confronting when “our” co-op does a deal with the devil. Has it sold out on us?

I asked dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque for his thoughts. “My view is the news is very, very positive,” he said. “This is one of the few things that has the potential to lift the returns for farmers by maybe two or three cents per litre and, perhaps more importantly, it can reduce the volatility of farm gate prices.”

The thing is, while Murray Goulburn exports around half of its milk, reducing our reliance on the supermarkets, that exposure to international commodity prices and the exchange rate can be painful, too. International commodity prices rise and fall like a cork in a bottle and the average Aussie dairy farmer loses about $9,000 (according to my back of the envelope sums) with every cent the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar. Of course, it’s at record highs right now and not looking like falling below parity any time soon. The uncertainty that comes with that volatility makes it very hard for farmers to attract finance and invest with confidence in their businesses.

On the other hand, I wondered why Murray Goulburn could make a profitable $1 milk deal with Coles when Lion, the company currently processing Coles’ homebrand milk, cannot. Jon Hauser thinks it’s largely an issue of supply chain efficiency.

“Leaving aside the aberration of $1.00 discount milk, branded milk retails at about $1.60 per litre and supermarket private label at about $1.20 per litre,” Hauser says.

“Farmers are getting 25 – 35 % of the consumer dollar. In the UK and the US farmer share is closer to 50%. Direct supply by a farmer co-op removes the middleman that is adding cost in marketing and collecting additional value from their brands.

“It is true that the supermarkets will become ‘the brand’ but the farmer co-op should also able to retrieve some of this value. In the case of the Coles/MG deal, MG will get part of that return from the ranging of their own Devondale brand.

“What is most critical in maintaining a balance of commercial power is the ability of farmers to sell their milk to a range of alternate customers. Murray Goulburn has the diversity of product and markets to do that and can now genuinely claim that they have a balanced portfolio of domestic and export sales”.

It all sounds very positive for existing Victorian Murray Goulburn dairy farmers like me. But what about for farmers near Sydney, who have been supplying Lion and Parmalat and who traditionally get so much more for their milk than we do yet depend almost exclusively on supermarkets?

Mike Logan, the head of Dairy Connect, which represents the NSW dairy sector, describes today’s announcement as a “game changer” and in a letter to farmers, had this to say:

“We have three big changes on the table at once;
1. The manufacturing milk price rise
2. The drop in production so that NSW and Qld are now short of fresh milk
3. New models of supply to the supermarkets

“This all adds up to change.

“For the NSW dairy industry it may mean:
1. Investment in new processing capacity
2. A new pricing model for the whole fresh milk industry
3. Re-energising brands such as Devondale and Norco
4. Relocation of a large number of farmer dairy suppliers from one supplier to another
5. Changing role of the processors and processing capacity
6. A risk for the milk vendors as the processing sector changes.

“…the supermarkets have been true to their word and have been looking for new ways to create a sustainable future for the NSW dairy industry. We have to look past the $1/litre milk and build a new future.”

“However, these changes will be at considerable cost to some people. We need to be careful and respectful of the impact of these changes. We do not want to create a situation of winners and losers.”

The reality is, though, that there will be losers. Commenting on the future of the current processor of Coles’ milk, Lion, prominent NSW dairy farmer, Lynne Strong (@CHDairies) said on Twitter that “They have lost QLD plus NSW Coles contracts Cant see them surviving this one #sadbutrue”.

Lion is almost certainly not going to be the only loser in what all agree will be massive upheaval in New South Wales. But there will be winners and maybe, just maybe, represented by an increasingly powerful co-operative, dairy farmers will claw back a little dignity. And you, dear milk drinker, will soon be able to buy 100 per cent farmer-owned fresh milk knowing that all the profits stay right here in Australia.

Woolies the white knight unmasked by dairy defenders

Sometimes it’s what you read between the lines that’s the most important. In the cause of reporting about supermarket giant Woolworths’ formal announcement today confirming it’s arranging to directly contract dairy farmers to supply it milk, the most interesting comments are those that appear below the line.

Dairy farmers have shared their concerns about the move but now the ball is well and truly in the corner of Australian shoppers. If the comments from readers of Melbourne newspaper, The Age, are anything to go by, Woolworths’ attempt to mitigate the growing public distaste for supermarket ethics may have backfired.

I’ve picked out a few to summarise the tone of discussion online (my subheadings):

Squeezing the life out of the producers
“This is how they make the real money, had this explained by an insider recently to me. They find a producer and ask them to make their home brand for them along with their own branded premium product. People buy the cheaper version and the premium product disappears so they then just give them the second quality product in their packaging. Then supermarket owns them, they then turn on them and say, now we will pick it up, give u the packaging and labels you just give us the raw product. This means the producer the gets no profit on packaging, transport etc for the goods, and they are cut to the bare minimum of profit, this is how the supermarkets are squeezing the life out of the producers so they have no profit and no hope of improving. I won’t buy home brand, I like choice and supporting Aust companies.”
Commenter: Newcastle Gal

The admission of guilt
“Surprise, surprise I thought it was only several months ago that the supermarket giants (media) told us that the milk companies etc were not being disadvantaged and that the supermarket chains were picking up the losses, now it turns out that the supermarket chains are ripping off our suppliers after all..”
Commenter: Mik of Melbourne

Part of a bigger plan to screw consumers
“I ‘m sure the money that Woolies gets from their gaming machine can well and truly subsidies the milk (* bread). Instead, pay the real price for branded milk and cease this war. The only outcome will similar to Europe where fresh milk is now a luxury, mainly God awful UHT milk on shelves.”
Commenter: nm4047

It’s all about control
“Woolies and Coles will only rip off farmers because you let them. Note the success of Norco on the NSW North Coast, their milk is still selling for a fair bit more than $1 a litre and has withstood the “home brand” assault. Sales only dropped by 1-2% compared to the 25% drop of brands in the cities. Norco and the communities they support care for farmers, because they are farmers. Woolworths don’t care about farmers, by dealing directly with farmers they are hoping to break up the co-op models that are beating them in the rural areas and drive the farm-gate price down.”
Commenter: dude

And then there’s this from someone who obviously knows the dairy industry very, very well:

“Actually, it’s a combination of marketing ploy and the knowledge that Queensland and Western Australia are close to real domestic supply troubles if they keep losing dairy farmers.
Not being privy to Woolworth’s strategy in this move, this is what I suspect will occur.”

“(1) They’ll target large scale farmers or encourage investment in large scale farming for their direct supply. Good economics on their part but increases the exposure for the suppliers since return on their investment will be solely dependent on Woolworth’s assessment of a fair price.

“(2) They’ll concentrate on areas where they aren’t up against strong competition and where’s there’s excess manufacturing capacity available. Both WA and Queensland fit the bill here.
Victoria would be a less attractive option with its reliance on export markets and dominance by co-operatives and farmer owned supplier groups. South Australia has a small localised industry and is attracting interest from Victorian based co-operative Murray Goulburn. Tasmania has good production prospects but transport is an ongoing issue. So probably WA and Queensland.

“(3) Once they’ve got a foothold, it’ll be a balancing act. Do they squeeze their fresh milk suppliers or do they loss-lead and extend their range of products by trying to increase both their supplier base and their range of manufacturing options? More ‘supermarket own’ brands would probably be their ultimate goal but not at the cost of having to carry the brands for a long time before a return on investment. I’d say their ideal is complete vertical integration but they know that can backfire big time if you don’t control enough of the market.

“One thing for sure. This is about Woolworths not about the farmers. And let’s face it, that’s what all businesses are about- not just supermarket owners”
Commenter: David of Leongatha

All in all, I’d call it an unmitigated PR flop. On the other hand, those commenting online on a story in The Age are hardly a representative sample of Australians. It’s inevitable that farmers will be recruited by Woolies (and Coles, in turn, no doubt) but whether Aussies will buy either the rhetoric or the “fair” home-brand milk is far from a sure thing.

The brains behind “The truth about the supermarket war”

Vet student, Cassandra MacDonald, launched her single-handed David vs Goliath battle against supermarket giant Coles yesterday and, already, her clever YouTube video “The TRUTH about the supermarket war” looks like going viral.

So, who is this talented young woman? Milk Maid Marian asked Cassandra a few questions to find out more.

MMM: Tell us about yourself – do you have a dairying connection?

I am a fifth year veterinary science student studying at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. I am not from a farm, I was brought up in the suburban South Coast of NSW for the first ten years of my life. My connection to the dairy industry started through showing dairy cattle at high school. Through the opportunities I have been given and the people I have met/connections I have made through this initial start in the dairy industry, I have been able to get where I am today, studying veterinary science, showing and breeding dairy cattle, milking on dairies, scholarships I have won, trips overseas that I have won. All because someone saw my interest as an eleven year old, who had fell in love with dairy cattle. I feel I owe it to the industry to promote it and share with others how great the industry is.

MMM: What made you decide to create your infographic?

I saw the Coles video, after seeing an article about it on FarmOnline and felt angry about the misrepresentations that presented in their video. I couldn’t believe or understand the way they tried to represent the different points just to spin them to their advantage and fool consumers into believing them. And believe they will! I wanted to reply and vent my anger. So I thought almost immediately- hey I can draw, why not use that talent and copy them and throw it straight back in their faces? Especially when they have obviously spent a lot of money and effort on it, and me being an absolute amateur, I wanted to make fun of their efforts and make it seem trivial in a way I guess.

MMM: How did you do it? How long have you been working on it?

I started by doing drawings and then realised I needed a plan, a path to follow so I scrapped that idea and started again by writing what I thought I would narrate over the top of the video. I wanted it to address the same issues as brought up in the Coles video but represent them properly and wholly. I wrote it off the cuff, after having written a letter to The Land for their editorial (after finding out it was way too long for what they wanted) which was researched using ABARE data and data and information from Dairy Australia as well as a few of my farmer contacts who are extremely experienced in the matter – I am always either text messaging or conversing with them either over the phone or in person about these issues.

I then went through the text I had written and wrote down a list of what I could draw to represent the points I was trying to make. It took me a couple of hours over two afternoons to make the drawings- of which I filmed on the floor with my iPad- and everything you see in the video is the first and only draft- there were no mistakes, no reshooting, or several tried at any of the pictures- they’re all the ones I drew off the cuff as I consulted my list I made. I think I made about 52 clips altogether.

I then had to work out how to record my voice (easy once I found the voice recorder on my computer), and then, compile and edit the clips to make the video. This is where I ran into a dead end. I didn’t think it was going to make it passed this. I had several ‘movie maker’ programs on my computer, didn’t know how to use any of them, and none of them did what I wanted them to do.

Two nights ago I finally found a program on the internet, downloaded it and spent the next 16 hours working on getting the clips to match the audio – which was not easy – especially when my ancient computer couldn’t deal with the needs of the program and wouldn’t let me preview anything before committing to making it a movie. And each time you commit, it took about one hour for it to process it, so after ‘making’ the movie 7 times, it was finally close enough to what I wanted and I was ready to post it! I even went as far as to looking up what the best time to post on Facebook was, and luckily my research told me the time I had planned.

MMM: How do you hope Coles, shoppers and dairy farmers will respond?

I hope it makes Coles realise that there are people out there ready to fight back against their sneaky spin. They will have to think harder to try and justify their moves, because if they lie or warp the truth again, I will be more than happy to come back at them again. Also, as I say in the video, I want them to stop denying that they are not having an effect on the price some farmers are getting for their milk, and on the industry as a whole. Because even if they are not having a direct effect, their effect is certainly indirect with the decreased sale in branded products and thus decrease in income and profits of the processing companies who ultimately need to pay the farmer.

I hope consumers will stop and think about what exactly is happening. I hope they think about the choices they make, and how it affects others. Ultimately it would be great to see more people boycotting generic brand milks and buying branded milk products, I think this is the only way we can combat the issue, as Coles is not going to budge anytime soon (unless they get done in the current investigation by the ACCC). I also want them to think about the information they are being fed, especially by such big powerful companies – not to believe everything they are fed!

For dairy farmers, I would like to see them agree with me as I hope I have done the right thing and represented them in a way that is honest and accurate. I want their approval basically. After their approval I would love them to all share the video around to everyone they know – why because it will get to more and more people, and most of them won’t be form a dairy background. And most of them do buy milk, and most likely buy it from a supermarket. Then we are educating our consumers for our ultimate benefit, for their support and hope that they will make conscious decisions at the supermarket and not just go for the cheapest alternative.

MMM: What has been the response so far?

So far the response has been somewhat unbelievable. It is what I wanted though. I want this to reach as many people as it can. One of my biggest passions is educating people about agriculture, especially about the dairy industry. At present I have had over 50 of my friends share the video on Facebook with who knows how many friends (and who knows how that keeps going), I have had numerous people share it on other pages on Facebook, and before I knew it, it had hit Twitter – I wasn’t even a part of Twitter (but I am now!). On YouTube itself, I have had 2788 views in not even 24 hours. The support has been fantastic as I was somewhat nervous, but the commendations have been all positive and really amazing!

The totem of $1 milk

Two years ago today, Coles offered up milk as a sacrifice in the name of market share. It’s now become totemic in Victoria.

The reality is that about two-thirds of Australia’s milk comes from Victoria’s cows but not a lot of my farm’s milk ends up in the supermarket fridge.

We supply the Murray Goulburn Co-op, which processes about one-third of Australia’s milk and has the technology to make a huge variety of dairy foods and ingredients. It sells to the highest bidder, so the percentage that gets exported depends on how well global commodity prices compare with local dairy markets. In 2011/12, 49 per cent was exported, which is pretty typical.

But Victorian farmers are demoralised. Many are in desperate financial positions. The effects of the collapse in global commodity prices, skyrocketing energy prices, high feed costs and the high Australian dollar are clear but shrouded in secrecy is the impact of the supermarket war.

While $1 milk gets all the attention, other dairy products like butter and cheese have also been hit by the supermarket price war. Murray Goulburn has invested heavily in relaunching its supermarket brands and CEO Gary Helou infamously got all hot under the collar last month about Coles’ refusal to stock MG’s Devondale cheese. But nobody can talk about how Coles and MG negotiate our livelihoods behind the tinted windows of “Darth Vader’s Castle” as the Coles HQ is fondly nicknamed by its suppliers.

We’ll probably never know just what the damage has been – only that our situation is very different from that in states like NSW and Queensland where there is pretty much total reliance on fresh milk sales.

But what those claiming to be “the voice of reason” dismiss is the effect ‘milk that’s cheaper than water’ has on the psyche. It signals to farmers that a fair go no longer matters. And that’s what hurts the most on Australia Day.

No fresh milk for Australians? Is UHT the next big thing?

It’s been an amazing week. First, milk processor Lion, came right out and said the unthinkable – that a milk price below the cost of production was “fair” and that there need to be fewer dairy farmers in Queensland and New South Wales.

Then, yesterday, Sue Neales (follow her @BushReporter on Twitter) of The Australian reported that “Desperate Australian dairy farmers are looking to fly fresh milk directly into Asia to deprive Coles and Woolworths of their unassailable market power.”.

In Sue Neales’ story, Dairy Connect farmers’ group president Adrian Drury said: “We are telling the supermarkets that they mightn’t always have easy access to fresh milk and that they take us for granted at their peril in their push to force milk prices down.”.

What does that mean for you, the milk drinker?

To put it bluntly, you might find yourself drinking UHT milk rather than fresh milk sooner than I expected. Rumours are rife in dairy-land that Coles is keen to shift you from the fridge to the aisles when it comes to picking up your milk. Coles has quite a contingent of European executives these days, where the move from fresh to UHT has been spectacularly successful for the supermarkets. According to Wikipedia, 7 out of 10 Europeans regularly drink UHT rather than fresh milk.

Why UHT? For supermarkets, the benefits of stocking UHT are huge. It lasts longer, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and, best of all, it can be sourced from far away, increasing their range of supply.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? After all, there’s evidence that UHT is greener (given it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) and it is still good for you (read more about UHT here, if you like). Question is, do you want to be able to choose?

PS: If The Australian won’t let you read Sue’s story, Google the headline Farmers’ bid to end duopoly milk run and you should be able to read the lot.