Whose fault is it?

Lots has changed since 1980. Milk production in Victoria has more than doubled despite cow numbers remaining the same and 35% per cent less land to graze.

Since then, we’ve had massive advances in cow genetics, understanding how to grow grass and exactly what cows need to eat. But we farmers are no better off. Despite it all, we’re very much poorer.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on why that is and just whose fault it is. Pretty much everyone has copped it online: the government, supermarkets, milk processors, agri leaders, farmers and consumers. What strikes me, though, is just how similar our situation is to that of farmers around the globe.

Milk has been sprayed at icons in France, the Brits have hit the barricades in desperation, and outgunned riot police in Brussels. Things are miserable in the US, too.  I think the reality is that affluent societies consider high-quality food a right. And you don’t value your rights until they are threatened.

Very few urban Australians would believe their access to fresh milk is at risk and, until they do, unsustainable food pricing will be “someone else’s problem”. I wonder whether it will be me or my children who will one day staff the barricades, wield the “milk cannon” or simply quietly try something else that’s truly valued by Australians.

No fresh milk for Australians? Is UHT the next big thing?

It’s been an amazing week. First, milk processor Lion, came right out and said the unthinkable – that a milk price below the cost of production was “fair” and that there need to be fewer dairy farmers in Queensland and New South Wales.

Then, yesterday, Sue Neales (follow her @BushReporter on Twitter) of The Australian reported that “Desperate Australian dairy farmers are looking to fly fresh milk directly into Asia to deprive Coles and Woolworths of their unassailable market power.”.

In Sue Neales’ story, Dairy Connect farmers’ group president Adrian Drury said: “We are telling the supermarkets that they mightn’t always have easy access to fresh milk and that they take us for granted at their peril in their push to force milk prices down.”.

What does that mean for you, the milk drinker?

To put it bluntly, you might find yourself drinking UHT milk rather than fresh milk sooner than I expected. Rumours are rife in dairy-land that Coles is keen to shift you from the fridge to the aisles when it comes to picking up your milk. Coles has quite a contingent of European executives these days, where the move from fresh to UHT has been spectacularly successful for the supermarkets. According to Wikipedia, 7 out of 10 Europeans regularly drink UHT rather than fresh milk.

Why UHT? For supermarkets, the benefits of stocking UHT are huge. It lasts longer, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and, best of all, it can be sourced from far away, increasing their range of supply.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? After all, there’s evidence that UHT is greener (given it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) and it is still good for you (read more about UHT here, if you like). Question is, do you want to be able to choose?

PS: If The Australian won’t let you read Sue’s story, Google the headline Farmers’ bid to end duopoly milk run and you should be able to read the lot.

I asked UDV president whether dairy farmers should tip their milk down the drain

I’ve been asked a few times why dairy farmers don’t just refuse to supply supermarkets or tip our milk down the drain in protest at the unsustainable price of milk. Meanwhile, the actions of the Brits in blockading milk processors has been spectacularly successful. I thought I’d put a few “burning” milk price questions to the president of the United Dairy Farmers of Victoria, Kerry Callow, who kindly offered the following replies.

Kerry Callow

UDV president, Kerry Callow

MMM: We’ve all heard that $1 milk is a big deal for farmers but what about consumers? It sounds like a great deal, especially for families doing it tough!
KC: Milk at $1 is obviously attractive to consumers. Especially those with limited incomes and young families to feed. Dairy farming families understand limited incomes. They have had a cut in prices they receive – like having a salary cut. But this is not just about the here and now. It’s also about what’s sustainable. What will consumers have in years to come? Milk at $1 a litre retail is not sustainable for dairy farmers to produce. In Queensland it is reported that already 30 farms have left the dairy industry and more will follow. And consumers will have noticed the challenge in finding non-supermarket brand full cream milk in the dairy sections. This is a strategy for the supermarkets to dominate the supply of milk products industry. It is hard to see how consumers will keep the choices they currently enjoy. Farmers cannot afford to produce milk at the current price.

MMM: Why don’t farmers simply refuse to sell the milk at such low prices?
KC: Dairy farmers also have families to feed, children to educate and bills to pay (power has gone up 16% since the end of June, refrigerant gases required to cool milk have skyrocketed). And dairy farmers also have contracts to supply milk to processors to fulfil. The financial penalty to not supply is greater than the financial penalty to supply at a loss.

MMM: What about tipping the milk down the drain for a few days?
KC: Tipping milk out for a few days doesn’t fix the problem. (Disposing of milk that way does create added management challenges on farm). The problem is that supermarkets have decided to use milk as a ’loss leader’ and hold the price of milk down to ridiculous levels.

MMM: Is the VFF/UDV considering action like the farmers took in the UK? Would it work here?
KC: There is also discussion in New South Wales and Queensland about taking direct action. Because dairy farmers in those states rely heavily on the fresh milk market they are more exposed to the supermarkets pricing actions. Taking direct action is difficult because in this case the focus of dairy farmers angst is not a government or agency or authority, it is a commercial entity that has shown limited capacity to hear farmers concerns or acknowledge that their actions are directly and adversely impacting dairy farming families. That said, farmers are getting frustrated with the current situation.

MMM: Is there a silver lining to the $1 milk campaign?
KC: Not really. The supermarkets will point to milk consumption being higher now than before the retail milk price was slashed. But we think the consumer is heading down the road of less choice for milk products. And now we have other products like cheese and butter being marketed heavily on price. That is not a positive outcome.