When Old Macdonald retires, who should own the farm?

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Him (distracted by his new iPhone 6): A litre of milk, please.
Me: That’s $1.20, thanks.
Him: $1.20? No way, I can’t afford that. We go through four litres of milk a week. I’ll get it at $1.00 down the road.
Me: But $1.00 isn’t enough!
Him (wanders off, still looking at the iPhone)

Me (in 10 years): I’m tired of trying to make ends meet. I’m retiring.
Him (looks up from new iPhone 60): You’re selling the farm?
Me: Yep. Got a good price from a guy who says he can see the farm’s potential. I’m finally able to retire.
Him: But where will I get my milk from?
Me: The new owner, I guess.
Him: But he might sell it to someone else!
Me: Just get it from down the road then, like usual.
Him: But what if they decide to retire as well and sell it to this bloke?
Me: Relax. Not everyone’s going to sell to the same bloke.
Him (waving arms, stamping feet): But what if they do? It’s not fair. You are not to sell to him. This is MY milk. I demand food SE-CU-RI-TY!!!
Me: Maybe you could just offer him $1.20 for it?

Banning foreign ownership of Australian farms sounds nice in theory but it’s just not fair. Not to the farmers who want a fair price for their land and not to international investors who appreciate the true value of our farms.

There are two main arguments against foreign ownership of farms: ethical practices and food security.

Ethical practices are important and Australia has stringent rules governing almost every aspect of farm operations. In 2014, I wrote about my concerns regarding an overseas firm publicly railing against those laws but, even so, am dismayed to see Milk Maid Marian used as a rationale for preventing any foreign ownership. Farming well, no matter who by, should be supported. Farming badly, no matter who by, deserves concern.

Food security, on the other hand, is a privilege, not a right. Australians – among the globe’s wealthiest people – are in a great position to compete for our share of the world’s abundance of food. And there is no place for a peasant underclass here in Australia.

It’s dazzlingly hypocritical to gleefully buy cheap, high quality electronics from poor nations on one hand but refuse to allow them to buy affordable, high quality food from us in return. If Aussies really want food security, they need to start putting their money where their mouths are.

 

How do I know buying branded milk will mean better prices for farmers?

“I am concerned about the welfare of Dairy farmers and the ‘$2 dollar’ milk available at supermarkets. I just want to know which milk benefits the farmers the most and not overseas owned companies who are not passing on the money to farmers. I have been paying the extra buying Dairy Farmers, only to find out that they are owned by a Japanese company!…We are happy to pay extra if we know a fair proportion of the money is going to farmers.”

A fellow called Peter sent me this message in the wee hours and raised a really good point – one that was echoed by CC & Ruby’s question the other day, so I’ve decided to address this thorny issue head-on.

Almost all dairy farmers send our milk to large processing companies because Australia’s stringent dairy food safety laws make it very expensive and difficult to supply consumers directly.

Our farm supplies the Murray Goulburn Cooperative, which is owned purely by the farmers who supply it. If you buy Murray Goulburn’s Devondale dairy foods, you know 100% of the profits are being returned to dairy farmers. The wonderful thing about MG is that because it’s owned by farmers for farmers and processes around 35% of Australia’s milk, it tends to set a farmgate price benchmark for the other processors.

On the other hand, it doesn’t pick up milk from right around Australia, concentrating on the biggest milk-producing state of Victoria. If you’re a dairy farmer in northern NSW, for example, you don’t have the option of supplying the Co-op and are more likely to supply a privately-owned processor. These privately-owned processors sell dairy foods under their own brand names or package homebrand milk under contract to the supermarkets.

When Coles and Woolies embarked on their milk war, it hit the processors hard pretty much straight away because brand name milk sales fell.

The Coles spin doctors said it wouldn’t affect farmers because they deal with the processors, not the farmers. This defies common sense. If a multinational supermarket controlling a huge chunk of retail sales decides to cut its prices below a sustainable level (Coles denies this too but Woolies has gone on record saying $1 per litre is not sustainable), putting its multinational food processor supplier to in turn lower its own costs, how do you expect that processor to respond? By sourcing the raw milk more cheaply of course! And guess what? It buys from small family businesses (98% of Australian dairy farms are family owned and operated) who have the least bargaining power of all.

No, I can’t guarantee that if Peter buys Dairy Farmer branded milk rather than private label, farmers will be better off. On the other hand, it is guaranteed that if Peter buys unsustainably priced milk, someone else will have to pay. That will almost certainly be a farmer and her family in the short term. In the medium term, it will be her cows and the environment and, over the longer term, it will be milk drinkers because there’s no such thing as a free lunch.