Dairy crisis in dates disgraces ADF and minister

Here’s a potted history of the dairy crisis. It’s worth remembering:

April 2016                   MG stuns the dairy community with the clawback

May 2016                    Fonterra follows suit, crashing its price

May 2016                    Milk price index announced

August 2016                Ag minister Barnaby Joyce says he will put an end to $1 milk

September 2016          Senate inquiry into dairy industry announced

October 2016             Treasurer Scott Morrison instructed the ACCC to hold an inquiry into the competitiveness of prices, trading practices and the supply chain in the Australian dairy industry.

August 2017                Senate committee report released

November 2017          Consultant chosen to deliver milk price index

November 2017          ACCC Interim report

December 2017           Milk price index consultant sacked

March 2018                 UDV opposes mandatory code

April 2018                   ACCC final report

May 2018                    Milk price index due “mid year”

May 2018                     ADF: “we cannot make a snap decision” on mandatory code

June 2018                     Minister Littleproud: no timeframe for decision on mandatory code “will investigate thoroughly”

So, after all this, where are we today, just two weeks from a new set of pricing for our milk?:

  • No action on ACCC recommendations
  • No milk price index
  • No opening price from either of the big two processors
  • $1 milk AND $6 cheese, with promise of even lower retail milk prices

No wonder farmers are angry. The can has already been well and truly kicked down the road. The independent umpire has spoken.

After two years of investigation and analysis, what justification do the ADF and Minister Littleproud have for waiting any longer to do their jobs and take decisive action to protect dairy farmers?

Theo was too right…

keep-calm-let-s-cut-the-cake-and-eat-it

Here’s an unpalatable truth: when Fonterra head Theo Spierings said the milk price was unsustainable back in August last year, he was right. He also said the way milk prices are set needs to change. Correct again. Then he started talking about the need for, “a good debate with farmers … about how are we going to share – how are we going to cut the cake.”.  That’s what really matters right now.

At the time, Fonterra Australia head, Judith Swales responded to Milk Maid Marian’s request to clarify what Theo had meant by “sharing the cake” and said:

“We have always said that the best dairy industry model is the one where everyone can get a sustainable return. Farmers need to be able to make money, processors need to make money and so do customers, like retailers. And that’s what he means by sharing the cake.”

It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. The problem is that we’ve learnt one more lesson in the last couple of months: if you’re stranded on a desert island with a hungry gorilla and a small cake, you’re in very big trouble indeed.

This post is not intended as an attack on Fonterra. After all, things are no better at Murray Goulburn. The reality is when there are thousands of small businesses selling a highly perishable product to a handful of large corporates and multinationals, the playing field is anything but even.

Just 12 months before Theo was talking about cake, the majority owner of Warrnambool Cheese and Butter, Lino Saputo, was quoted as wondering:

“…what will it take for the dairy farmers to be optimistic about the dairy industry and investing in their farms and what kinds of programs can we put in place that will assist them.”

At the time, I summarised my answer as “reliable profitability”. I posted the charts below showing just how far dairy farmers’ terms of trade had slipped and the wild fluctuations in profitability.

DairyTermsTrade

DairyBusinessProfit

“Productivity in the Australian Dairy Sector”, ABARES, September 2014

There’s one more factor I missed: confidence.

Writing for the latest edition of The Australian Dairyfarmer magazine, Dairy Australia managing director Ian Halliday notes that :

“In 2015, confidence among dairy farmers was at 75 per cent. In February this year, confidence had fallen to 65 per cent reflecting the dry seasonal conditions and also what milk prices were looking like for 2016-17 when considering the global price outlook.”

“Following the sudden milk price cuts in late April, which affected up to 65 per cent of all dairy farmers, we conducted another survey to get an understanding of changes in farmer confidence. This sample, although smaller, indicated confidence nationally had droppedd to 45 per cent.”

I’m willing to bet that confidence has fallen to historic lows after the Murray Goulburn opening price announcement.

What’s needed now is:

  • Transparency
  • Risk management strategies to deal with volatility
  • A more level playing field that provides farmers with real choices when dealing with processors.

These are the ingredients of reliable profitability and, without it, we’ll be continually wrestling the gorillas for the crumbs of a perpetually shrinking cake.

What it will take to encourage dairy farmers to grow

The much lamented stagnant Australian milk pond

The much lamented stagnant Australian milk pond

Consider this entreaty from the charming Lino Saputo Jr, who is the newish owner of Warrnambool Cheese & Butter:

“…what will it take for the dairy farmers to be optimistic about the dairy industry and investing in their farms and what kinds of programs can we put in place that will assist them.”

“What we are trying to do in Australia is appeal to the dairy farmers and say, ‘Look, we can be a good home for your milk. If you choose to increase your herd size and you’re producing more milk, we will put on the infrastructure to process that milk’.”

Lino’s not alone. Many of the processors including our own co-op, MG, would like to see Australian dairy farmers arise from our slumber and produce more, more, more. Why, the industry even commissioned the Horizon 2020 Report last year to work out why we are so sluggish.

But even a simple dairy farmer can sum it up in two words: Continue reading

Dairy pawn

Image from http://enos.deviantart.com/art/Cow-Chess-1353853 by enos of Deviant Art

These days, I feel a little like a chess piece; more pawn than queen.

The Australian federal government has rushed into a free trade agreement with Japan that does next-to-nothing to help Aussie dairy break through tariff barriers, even though Japan is hardly known for a growing dairy industry of its own that deserves protection. I don’t know why we were overlooked but a Sydney Morning Herald story quotes Warren Truss as citing “compromises”.

It’s been an interesting few days for dairy. Coincidentally, the ACCC forced supermarket superpower, Coles, to confess that it was lying when it claimed the $1 milk had not hurt dairy farmers.

At the same time, the media is littered with references to milk as “white gold” and so on, while our co-op, Murray Goulburn, contemplates a partial sell-off to raise capital.

And the milk maid? Yes, I’ve almost recovered financially from last year now but not emotionally.

A Kiwi who’s now dairy farming here in Victoria tells me that one of the differences he’s noticed is that there’s just not the “buzz” around our farmers in a good year that you get in NZ.

Why? First, we’re more battle-weary and risk averse after a decade of drought knocked us around. Second, we’re rightly a little more cynical. In NZ, dairying gets a lot of encouragement from a government that understands dairy’s huge economic impact on the entire nation. The sector accounts for about 3% of NZ’s GDP. Have a look at this economic statement:

“Rebounding dairy production drove a 1.4 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) for the September 2013 quarter — the biggest quarterly increase since December 2009, Statistics NZ (SNZ) said.”
The New Zealand Herald, 19 December 2013

Here in Australia, the dairy sector contributes $13 billion to our economy but that’s considered small fry, accounting for less than 1% of our GDP, which totalled $1451.1 billion in 2011–12.

If we are to realise our potential, we need a government that helps dairy grow rather than considering it as a tradeable concession. All eyes are now on the FTA negotiations with China.