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.

Murray Goulburn Co-op sheds jobs: why it’s happening

The co-op we supply, Murray Goulburn, has made an announcement that immediately made me sad. In an email sent to its farmers yesterday, managing director Gary Helou, wrote:

“The change program embarked on by MG is even more critical given increasing cost pressure and the recent significant decline in world market prices due to higher global milk supply. This initiative will help reduce the impact of falling world prices and a high Australian dollar on our supplier/shareholders. As a result of these changes, MG’s total workforce is set to reduce by 12% or 301 roles.”

While it makes me sad, I’m not surprised. Farmers are struggling to survive (less water, increasing costs, horrible prices and now the carbon tax slug estimated to cost us $7,500 each) and milk flows have dropped as a result. When appointed as the new CEO a few months ago, Mr Helou announced he would cut the co-op’s operating costs by a whopping 25%. That’s a lot of money.

As he went on to write in yesterday’s email:

“We continue to employ more than 2,100 people, mostly in rural and regional Australia, and contribute an estimated $6 billion to the Australian economy. These changes will make a significant contribution to our goal of reducing operating costs by $100 million this year and set us on the path to becoming a world leader in dairy foods”.

To give you some background, MG is Australia’s last big dairy farmer co-operative and processes around 35% of the country’s milk. You can’t own shares in MG unless you supply the co-op milk, so all the profits go straight back to farmers. The other big players are privately owned and profit from buying milk at the lowest possible price and selling it at the highest possible price. In effect, this means that MG tends to set the benchmark for the price dairy farmers like me are paid for their milk.

This is why I feel torn about the “change program”. On one hand, I am worried that somewhere along the way, we will weaken MG’s co-op values but, on the other, we desperately need MG to be strong and efficient. Neither the 2,100 MG workforce or Australia’s dairy farmers can afford to lose this gentle giant. Please be careful, Mr Helou, and good luck.