Tag Archives: dairy crisis

ACCC takes Helou, Hingle and MG to court but lets Fonterra off the hook

eleanor-roosevelt

Pic credit: The Solution News at TSNnews.com

Today, the ACCC announced that it is taking Murray Goulburn to the Federal Court for unconscionable conduct. It will also pursue MG’s former MD, Gary Helou, and CFO, Brad Hingle.

That’s a bit of a relief after Gary Helou told the Senate Inquiry in February that he had not been questioned by investigators. If there’s a villain in the whole dairy disaster we can all agree on, it is Gary Helou. I, for one, am glad he will have his day in court.

I am also relieved the ACCC has shown the wisdom of Job when dealing with MG. As the ACCC said in its statement:

“The ACCC has decided not to seek a pecuniary penalty against Murray Goulburn because, as a co-operative, any penalty imposed could directly impact on the affected farmers.”

On the other hand, many farmers will be disappointed the ACCC has chosen not to take any action against Fonterra. The watchdog explained that decision in a quote from ACCC chairman, Rod Sims:

“A major consideration for the ACCC in deciding not to take action was that Fonterra was more transparent about the risks and potential for a reduction in the farmgate milk price from quite early in the season,” Mr Sims said.

Rod Sims is right. Fonterra did say, more than once and from early on in the season, that the milk price was unsustainably high. Why, I was one of the farmers upset with Fonterra big banana, Theo Spierings, for broadcasting this via the newspapers eight months before the price collapse. That much, I do understand and, with the benefit of hindsight, Fonterra was doing the right thing.

Theo

Fonterra was in an impossible position. While, technically, Fonterra could have cut its price earlier and, therefore, less savagely, the reality was that it had little choice. It would have haemorrhaged supply to MG and, if the co-op had delivered on its promises, the Bonlac Supply Agreement would have forced Fonterra to match MG’s price – no matter how unrealistic – anyway.

What it does not excuse, however, is the way Fonterra responded once MG announced its price cut.

At first, Fonterra sat on its hands, apparently caught by surprise like the rest of us. Then announced a slashing of the milk price from $5.60 to $1.91kg MS – the equivalent to 14 or 15 cents per litre. It gave no notice – actually, it revised the price for May and June on May 5. There was no time for farmers to plan and we were all faced with a frenzy of late-night nightmarish decision making.

On top of that, the Fonterra response failed to consider the devastating effect it would have on farmers with autumn-calving herds. Fonterra moved the goalposts a week later to spread the pain more evenly across its farmer suppliers but, for those who’d been most responsive, it was too late. Cows had been culled and the decision to send milkers to market is absolutely final.

Even now, farmers who chose not to accept the low-interest loans Fonterra offered to partially fill the void are still paying a mandatory levy to fund the scheme.

The weeks of insanity in May and the pain it continues to wreak on farmers cost Fonterra Australia loyalty that took it decades to build, as Australian GM of Milk Supply, Matt Watt acknowledged in this excerpt of an email to suppliers just minutes ago:

  • “You will have seen today that the ACCC released its findings into their investigation into MG and Fonterra over last season’s step down. The ACCC advised that they have decided not to take action against Fonterra.”

  • “I know the last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for you and your families, your communities and our industry.

  • “We’ve listened to you, and we’ve learned a lot over the past year. What you’ve told us has informed the steps we’re taking to ensure a stronger dairy industry.

  • “As you know, we’re working with BSC Board on greater transparency on price and as mentioned earlier I look forward to sharing more on that at the upcoming cluster meetings. We’re also fully engaged in the Dairy Industry Code of Conduct.

  • “We understand it will take time to rebuild confidence, and this is something we are firmly committed to.”

Neither of the two big Australian processors covered themselves in glory a year ago.  At least we now have some prospect of justice, if not recompense, for all the farmers affected by the reckless behaviour of the man at MG’s helm that sent so many to the rocks.

It’s a sign – a good sign – that the dairy community will chart a better course and keep a closer watch in the years to come.

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Milk maid says thank you to her heroes: you!

cropped-family

A heartfelt thank you from our family to yours

There may have been a few villains in the dairy disaster but a year on from the day Murray Goulburn made its infamous announcement, there are many more heroes.

Millions of them.

I remember my first trip to Melbourne after the story of our plight reached the city. A business acquaintance greeted me with: “Getting tricky buying a litre of milk these days, Marian.”. Lee had been to three shops before he could find branded milk.

Three shops. For a bottle of milk.

I remember my neighbours calling in to see if I really was alright after The Project went to air while I welled up with tears beside my husband. The tears spoke of the sense of despair, shock and downright frustration that being helpless in the face of careless callousness.

But not any more.

The sense of helplessness has passed, thanks to people like Lee and those, like Waleed Aly, who made our stories heard. Ordinary people took the extraordinary step of doing something Coles and Woolies never thought they would. They showed they cared with their wallets.

And that clear, genuine care drove action.

We farmers have been gifted something precious, a once in a lifetime chance to change things for the better. Thanks to all the ordinary people making an extraordinary statement with the simple, everyday purchase of milk, we have the attention of the nation’s watchdogs and the ear of its leaders. If we are clever enough, we can make sure this never happens again.

Now that’s something worth remembering on a day we’d otherwise rather forget. Thank you.

 

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Dairy love and why it’s lacking on St Valentine’s

“Imagine you decided to stay and defend your home from a bushfire, while your neighbour flees.”

“You save your home but the mental scars are deep.”

“Your neighbour’s place is burnt to the ground and sympathy floods in for the family and, in time, they move into a beautiful new home.”

This was the scenario clinical psychologist Rob Gordon put to me explaining why rifts often open in any community after a disaster. He pointed out that because everyone’s experience of a disaster is different, misunderstanding and resentment brew under the pressure of recovery.

I’ve seen it in dairy social media forums. While thousands of farmers are finding ways to support each other on forums like the Show Some Dairy Love Facebook page, there are some cranksters out there who need to kick heads.

I’ve felt the heat of that anger first-hand, ironically from a non-farmer, who says I was one of those with a secretive “special deal” shielded from the infamous claw-back, accusing me of having no morals.

The truth is that, in May 2015, I had chosen to sign up for one of Fonterra’s “risk management products” available to all suppliers. It meant the price for 70 per cent of our milk during the 15/16 financial year bobbed about in a range with upper and lower limits.

Sure, we would have missed out badly if prices did get to MG’s much-vaunted $6.05kgMS forecast close but it felt like good insurance.

When Fonterra cut its price in May 2016, the price for 70 per cent of our milk dropped to its floor. The remaining 30 per cent tumbled the whole way down.

Lots of people were much worse off than we were. Others were much better off.

That’s the thing. Just like a bushfire, the milk crisis has affected everyone differently. So many factors come into play, like:

  • the size of your farm,
  • the time of year your cows calve,
  • which processor your farm supplies,
  • whether you have/had a contract, and
  • which stage your business is at.

On top of all this, there is loyalty and trust.

Hundreds of farmers swapped processors for the first time in years or decades. For many, it was a matter of survival. Others have not been able to switch and some consider leaving the last big co-op nothing short of treacherous desertion.

Add to all this that farmers have now been battling to pay bills for 10 months (actually, a lot longer if you were in one of the drought-affected regions) and it’s not surprising that people are feeling rather cranky, to say the least.

To make matters worse, change for the better seems an aeon away. The senate, ACCC and ASIC inquiries have revealed little to date, other than that the unrepentant Helou had not been interrogated.

I’m spending St Valentine’s Day at the Gippsland ACCC farmers’ forum. I hope that out of this comes a bit of the dairy love we all need.

 

 

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Secret meeting the ultimate irony in quest for transparency and trust

BarnabyMG

Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull meeting MG. Pic credit: The Guardian Australia

Tomorrow, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce will bring the cream of the dairy community – from retailers and processors through to farmers – together in a symposium to discuss our futures.

It’s acknowledged there is much work to do in order to rebuild trust. One of the measures widely touted – including by Murray Goulburn itself after an earlier chastening at the hands of Minister Joyce and PM Turnbull – has been increased transparency.

Yet tomorrow’s meeting will be:

  • attended by a list of so-far-unknown representatives on an invitation-only basis and;
  • their discussion will be conducted in secret.

No wonder many average dairy farmers outside the inner circle feel excluded and frustrated.

I take my hat off to Barnaby for dragging all the parties together. But this pivotal meeting needs to be an open and honest discussion of what can be done to renew the confidence of Australian dairy farmers in our futures. And if there’s a bully in the room who demanded the doors be closed, it’s time that bully was called out.

Nobody in the Australian dairy supply chain has the right to hold the rest of us to ransom any more. The high moral ground has been well and truly lost.

There are fears that the dairy symposium will be yet another talk-fest over tea and cucumber sandwiches that achieves little other than the fulfillment of a political promise. I’m hoping it will be so much more. If Barnaby Joyce can hold Johnny Depp to account, anything is possible.

UPDATE:

Thank you very much to the Deputy PM’s office for providing this information:

The symposium will be held in Melbourne tomorrow. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Dairy Australia and the ACCC’s agriculture commissioner, Mick Keogh will all address the symposium, to be chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

A spokeswoman for the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“We have invited key stakeholders from farmer organisations, processors and retailers to a dairy symposium to facilitate industry-led options to address the challenges facing the Australian dairy industry and discuss ways to improve the industry’s prospects going forward.

“The agenda will cover a number of topics including the outlook for the Australian dairy industry and options for improving milk price transparency, strengthening bargaining and restoring industry confidence.

 “The symposium is an opportunity to facilitate an industry-led discussion to better manage risk along the dairy supply chain, including managing the effects of world dairy prices.”

FURTHER UPDATE FROM AUGUST 25
Thanks again to the Deputy PM’s office for a list of RSVPs:

Farmer representative bodies
Australian Dairy Farmers
NSW Farmers
Dairy Connect
Queensland Dairyfarmers’ Organisation
South Australian Dairyfarmers’ Association
Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association
United Dairy Farmers of Victoria
Western Australia Farmers
National Farmers’ Federation
ACE Farming Company
Farmer, Willow Grove Gippsland
Farmer, Trafalgar Gippsland
Leppington Pastoral Company
Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative
Farmer, QLD
Farmer, WA
Farmer, VIC
Farmer, VIC
Farmer, VIC
Farmer, QLD

Processors
Australian Dairy Products Federation
Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC)
Bega
Murray Goulburn
Fonterra
Bonlac Supplier Group
Saputo
Norco
Burra Foods
Lion
Parmalat
A2
Premium Milk
Richmond Dairies

Retailers
Coles
Woolworths
ALDI
Metcash

Other
Dairy Australia
Macalister Irrigation District Customer Consultative Committee
KAP President
Sinclair Wilson Accountants Warrnambool
Manning Valley Fresh Group, Taree Collective Bargaining Group NSW
Freedom Foods

Government
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources
Assistant Minister for Rural Health, Federal Member for Lyne
Federal Member for Forrest
Federal Member for Wannon
Senator for Victoria
Victorian Minister for Agriculture
Leader of the Nationals Victoria, Victorian Shadow Minister for Agriculture
Deputy Prime Minister’s Agriculture Industry Advisory Council

Officials
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
Dairy Food Safety Victoria
Murray Darling Basin Authority
Campaspie Shire Council
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources
Department of Economic, Jobs, Transport and Resources

 

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Plain English guide to the dairy concessional loans in Victoria

Victoria

Like just about everything else involving the dairy debacle, the facts surrounding the Commonwealth concessional loans for dairy farmers and their roll-out in Victoria has been clouded in confusion.
A big thank you to the office of Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development, Jaala Pulford, for answering Milk Maid Marian’s questions.

  1.        Who can apply?

The Commonwealth Government has indicated the loans will be available to farm businesses that supplied milk to Murray Goulburn and/or Fonterra in 2015-16. Evidence of a milk supply contract and/or statement in 2015-16  to Murray Goulburn and/ or Fonterra will be required to prove eligibility.  The Victorian Government has sought changes to eligibility requirements to enable suppliers of other processors to access the scheme. Changes have also been sought to ensure share farmers and young farmers can access loan arrangements. The Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.       $30 million is available while the Federal government is in caretaker mode. This won’t cover many farms. Why must the rest wait until after October?

The Commonwealth Government’s Dairy Support package includes $55 million in Dairy Recovery Concessional Loans until 31 October 2016.  The Commonwealth has offered loan amounts of $30 million to Victoria; $10 million to New South Wales; $10 million to Tasmania; $5 million to South Australia.

Victoria has sought advice from the Commonwealth on loans available after 31 October 2016 arguing that Victoria’s allocation of the total $550 million pool should reflect that 70% of Australian dairy farms are located here. The Commonwealth have not provided advice on future allocations.

  1.        How much can individual farmers access? Originally, media reported that half a farmer’s debt up to $1 million  could be borrowed but recent media reports indicate a cap of $200,000.

The Commonwealth Government has determined loan amounts will be up to 50 per cent of total eligible debt to a maximum of $1 million. Eligible debt means debt that has been established upon commercial interest rates, terms and conditions and/ or debt to a dairy processor.

  1.        What is the interest rate and is it fixed or variable?

The interest rate is variable and set by the Commonwealth Government.  As at 1 June 2016 the rate is 2.71 per cent.

The Commonwealth Government variable interest rate will be calculated based on the average of the daily 10 year Commonwealth bond rate over a specified six month period. The concessional interest rate will be reviewed and revised if necessary in accordance with material changes to the Commonwealth 10 year bond rate, where a material change is taken to be a movement of 10 basis points (0.1 per cent). The rate will be published on Rural Finance’s website.

Victoria has sought changes to the scheme so that farmers can access lower interest rates available under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Concessional Loans scheme. This scheme provided rates of 1.67% to storm affected farmers in the Sunraysia in 2014. The Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.        What if banks hold land titles as security for loans and don’t want to relinquish it to Rural Finance?

Based on previous experience with other Commonwealth Government Concessional Loans scheme, this scenario is rare.

  1.        Many farmers are reluctant to apply for drought loans because the process and criteria are too difficult. Have you been able to make it simpler for farmers to apply for these concessional dairy loans? If so, how will they be different and are the criteria publicly available?

The Commonwealth Government determines the eligibility and requirements for the Dairy Recovery Concessional Loans. Victoria has sought a number of changes to improve eligibility criteria but the Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.        Minister Pulford quoted as saying only 70 farms will access the loans. What is the basis for that figure?

The estimate is based on the experience of other previous and current Commonwealth Government concessional loans schemes in Victoria. The figure assumes full subscription and the average loan amount of previous comparable schemes being around $450,000.

NOTE from Milk Maid Marian: At the time of writing, Rural Finance was taking registrations of interest for the concessional loans. Call 1800 260 425.

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Am I in a dairy crisis?

A group of young Gippsland dairy farmers say times are tough but not at crisis point, said well-known dairy consultant John Mulvany during an ABC Radio interview yesterday.

When I ask myself whether it feels like I am in a “dairy crisis”, the answer is a perplexing “yes and no”.

We will get through this year battle-weary but pretty much unscathed and the bank is still very supportive. The co-op recently delivered us a modest price increase, which included back-pay and that was very helpful. I hope I’m not jinxing myself by saying this but the autumn break has arrived, everything is green and growing and new seed is in the ground.

But when I look at why things are undoubtedly “tough”, that’s when it feels like a crisis.

International dairy commodity prices are good
Right now, we are actually being paid very well. It just doesn’t feel like it for two reasons. First, those excellent prices are in US dollars, which means that by the time you convert those prices into Aussie dollars, the prices are a lot less spectacular. Second, the cost of making milk has increased faster than milk prices have risen.

Given that international dairy commodity prices are notoriously volatile, I’m not looking forward to the next cycle, when they are considered “weak”.

The strong Aussie dollar is not going away anytime soon
Business commentators are telling Australian exporters (and around half of our milk is exported) to get used to a strong Aussie dollar. It’s here to stay.

Input costs are tipped to keep rising
The price of power, refrigerants and fuel is only going to keep rising, along with wages and, in the long term, fertiliser. Interest rates cannot be expected to remain so low forever, either.

Smart farming programs withering as R&D slashed
There have been savage cuts to agricultural R&D right around the country, with massive job losses here in Victoria. We are going to have to look further afield for innovation leadership.

Conflicting messages about the future of farm-gate prices
We are constantly told a massive protein shortage will transform dairy farmers from paupers to princes. As dairy industry commentator, Steve Spencer, writes in the latest edition of the Farm Policy Journal:

“One of the significant challenges faced by the industry – especially export manufacturers who can’t keep up with customer demand – is that too few of their milk suppliers have bought into the story that the future holds great opportunity.”

Glad you noticed, Steve. And little wonder we’re not buying the story. Not only are we no more profitable now than we were a decade ago when “the story” was first floated, just a few weeks ago, ABARES forecasted a 36 cents per litre farm-gate price within five years – well below our cost of production.

Steve goes on to say that the dairy industry is missing many key ingredients “…building confidence, showcasing success, positive esteem…” and then poses a “…critical question for all parts of the industry: how to motivate people to look long, adjusting their businesses and attitudes to accept the cycles of the market and cashflow as inevitable?”.

Steve, I think that is what we have done and that is why some call it a dairy crisis. Rhetoric no longer cuts it. But I reckon you’re right that we farmers do need to start thinking about the big picture beyond the farm gate so we are ready not only to face the future but to recast it before it’s too late to find our feet in the new world order of dairying nations.

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How to rescue dairy – from the nutty to the tricky

Dairy farmers gathered in their hundreds in south-west Victoria last night for a crisis meeting. What makes it a crisis? Very simply, dairy farmers are working seven days a week for free and petrified of losing our shirts.

Local agribusiness bankers tell me they are busy refinancing and arranging extra debt but land sales are at a standstill around here. Reporting on last night’s dairy crisis meeting, Simone Smith of The Weekly Times, described a “dire picture”:

“Warrnambool-based Coffey Hunt farm accounting specialist Garry Smith said across his client-base, farmers milking mostly between 450-500 cows, average feed costs were up 15 per cent – a $150,000 rise – with the cost of power for the first quarter of the year up 50 per cent.”

“He estimated across his client-base earnings would be 10 per cent down on last year with a combination of cash-flow and income down $260,000.

“Charles Stewart real estate agent Nick Adamson said better quality farms had dropped in value between 8-15 per cent, while others were up to 45 per cent down on peaks of several years ago.”

None of this is pretty and astonishingly, Peter Reith decided to appear on ABC’s The Drum website with a six-point plan that, at first, I thought was a spoof. Take a look and make up your own mind.

It’s not as simple as cutting petrol taxes and municipal rates. It’s tricky because of this conundrum: milk and dairy foods are considered so important that nobody wants to pay what they are worth to produce.

Every day I read comments on Twitter that go something like this: “My kids drink three litres of milk every two days, so I can only afford to buy $1 milk”. I know first-hand how tough it is to feed a family when you’re on struggle street, so I have a lot of sympathy for people in this predicament and it’s impossible to respond with anything other than compassion.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that there is no political appetite for an increased milk price. But the truth is this: dairy farmers should not and cannot fund an ersatz Australian welfare system by subsidising the cost of food. Welfare is the role of government.

So, while my dander is up, here’s a simple list of five tricky things that would make a big difference to this dairy farmer:

1. Deal with the supermarket duopoly
Down, Down, Down is not about you, dear milk drinker. The real reasons for the supermarket war are expressed in corporate ROIs rather than family budgets. At the end of the day, it will be the little people with the least market power – you, the shopper, and me, the farmer – who will pay.

2. Level the global playing field
Julia Gillard announced that Australia would be Asia’s food bowl but guess what? Unlike the world’s most powerful dairy exporters, the Kiwis, we do not have a free trade agreement with China, putting Australian dairy at an immediate 15% disadvantage. Nor do we receive the government subsidies that support our European and North American competitors.

3. Assist with the impact of the carbon tax
Australian dairy farmers are suffering a double whammy under the carbon tax. First, processors are passing the extra cost onto us in the form of lower farm gate prices (because the consumer won’t pay extra and nor will global commodity markets), reducing our incomes by around $5,000 each per year. At the same time, our costs – especially electricity and refrigerants – are rising in quantum leaps each quarter.

4. Support smart farming
Long exposed to the blow-torch of global export markets without subsidisation, Australia’s dairy farmers are among the most efficient in the world, according to research body, Dairy Australia. We can produce very high quality milk at a very low cost because we have invested in research and development. No longer. We are spending less and less on R&D and the Victorian government has just made massive staff cuts to our brains trust, the Department of Primary Industries.

5. Remember, I am the goose that lays the golden egg
I will not be able to continue to deliver high quality milk at such a low price while enhancing the environment and caring for our cows without sacrificing the basic wellbeing of my family and that, I refuse to do.

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