Protecting farmers from ourselves

Apparently farmers cannot be trusted with anything. Not even to want the highest farm gate milk price for ourselves.

Bega has just sold its stake in Warrnambool Cheese & Butter to Saputo, putting the Canadian billionaire on the brink of controlling WCB even though a higher price was on offer from Aussie farmer co-op, MG.

This happened because our co-op hasn’t been allowed to bid during the bidding period.

Australian farmers who want to invest in their own futures and who are willing to pay the highest price for WCB have been stymied by a government artifice in the name of protecting…you guessed it…farmers from themselves. Apparently, another processor that thrives on a low farmgate milk price is better for us farmers than having an efficient farmer-owned co-op.

This Aussie dairy farmer will never forgive Joe Hockey for sitting by and watching.

So, where to now? That, my fellow source of low-cost milk, is up to us, for although Saputo can buy WCB’s stainless steel, it cannot buy our future. Only Australia’s dairy farmers decide where our milk flows and our fortunes lie.

Cooperation versus investor returns – the future of dairy farming in Australia

MMM: Below is the first paragraph of an article by Professor Tim Mazzarol that appeared in The Conversation this week and, while it’s a long read, it puts everything facing Australian dairy beautifully into perspective.

If you feel as strongly about this as I do, please contact the office of Treasurer Joe Hockey on 02 6277 7340 and ask to speak to an advisor, as well as your local MPs and even Barnaby Joyce on 02 6277 7520 (who has no direct authority in this matter but does have a cabinet voice). The pollies need to know what farmers think so that they can give us a fair go.

Cooperation versus investor returns – the future of dairy farming in Australia

By Tim Mazzarol, University of Western Australia

The battle is heating up between Australia’s Murray Goulburn Co-operative, Bega Cheese Ltd and Canada’s Saputo Inc. over the acquisition of Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Ltd (WCB). Much of the discussion around who will end up buying WCB has focused on share price and investor returns, but there are much deeper issues at stake. These relate to the tensions between long term collective ownership of dairy supply chains by Australian farmers and the short term gains of shareholders. How this battle unfolds may decide the future of farmer control over Australia’s dairy industry.

Read the full article at The Conversation.

I’m a rich farmer

Back before the beginning of time, when Wayne told an acquaintance he was soon to marry a dairy farmer’s daughter, her response was, “Ker-ching! You’ve found the pot at the end of the rainbow there!”

She was a city-slicker who thought simply being farmers qualified our family as wealthy. There’s some truth in that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). In its feature on Australian farms and farmers, the ABS points out that:

“…the average weekly disposable income of farmers in 2009-10 ($568) was considerably lower than that of people working in other occupations ($921)…”

“While the reported income of farmers might have been relatively low, it is important to recognise that income is only one aspect of economic wellbeing. Wealth, in the form of bank accounts, shares, superannuation or property, is another important component, and can be drawn upon to smooth and support consumption over time, including during periods of low income. Indeed, wealth is particularly crucial for farming families given that farming income is often at the mercy of climatic conditions. The average equivalised net worth (taking into account both assets and liabilities) of farming households in 2009-10 was $1.3 million, much higher than the average across other households ($393,000). However, such high levels of wealth are not enjoyed by all farming households. In fact, 10% of farming households could be classified as having relatively low levels of wealth (i.e. in the lowest 40% of the wealth distribution). However, the bulk of farming households (71%) were in the top 20% of the wealth distribution. The high levels of wealth explain why, despite relatively low income, only a fraction (5%) of farming households are classified as having low economic resources, compared with a fifth (21%) of other households.”

One day, if my children decide not to become farmers and sell the place, all that wealth will come in handy! And while my postcode may not be prestigious, my home boasts a rather large backyard, unparalleled privacy and stunning views. But I have something even more priceless: a vocation, as the ABS explains.

“Farming as a vocation tends to be characterised by a high degree of self-employment and long working hours. In 2011, half (50%) of farmers worked 49 hours or more a week. Only 17% of other workers put in such long hours. More than half (56%) of Australia’s farmers were self-employed owner managers (compared with 15% of other workers), with a further 17% working as employees managing farms owned by someone else.”

“Although people who are self-employed generally work longer hours than others, this only goes part of the way to explaining the working hours of farmers. Even when comparing just among the self-employed, farmers were still much more likely to work long hours, with 56% farmers working 49 hours or more a week, compared with 30% of self-employed people in other occupations. This may in part reflect the nature of farm work which can necessitate tending to crops and animals at various times of the day and night.”

I think the last sentence is a little twee, don’t you? All sorts of people must attend to their work around the clock – firefighters, police, nurses, chefs, to name a few – but they share the workload with colleagues. The unvarnished truth is that because farm incomes are so low, few farmers can afford to employ enough help. That, my friend, is the downside of farming.

Still the upsides are pretty darned glorious and something a statistician could never hope to capture.