The brains behind “The truth about the supermarket war”

Vet student, Cassandra MacDonald, launched her single-handed David vs Goliath battle against supermarket giant Coles yesterday and, already, her clever YouTube video “The TRUTH about the supermarket war” looks like going viral.

So, who is this talented young woman? Milk Maid Marian asked Cassandra a few questions to find out more.

MMM: Tell us about yourself – do you have a dairying connection?

I am a fifth year veterinary science student studying at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. I am not from a farm, I was brought up in the suburban South Coast of NSW for the first ten years of my life. My connection to the dairy industry started through showing dairy cattle at high school. Through the opportunities I have been given and the people I have met/connections I have made through this initial start in the dairy industry, I have been able to get where I am today, studying veterinary science, showing and breeding dairy cattle, milking on dairies, scholarships I have won, trips overseas that I have won. All because someone saw my interest as an eleven year old, who had fell in love with dairy cattle. I feel I owe it to the industry to promote it and share with others how great the industry is.

MMM: What made you decide to create your infographic?

I saw the Coles video, after seeing an article about it on FarmOnline and felt angry about the misrepresentations that presented in their video. I couldn’t believe or understand the way they tried to represent the different points just to spin them to their advantage and fool consumers into believing them. And believe they will! I wanted to reply and vent my anger. So I thought almost immediately- hey I can draw, why not use that talent and copy them and throw it straight back in their faces? Especially when they have obviously spent a lot of money and effort on it, and me being an absolute amateur, I wanted to make fun of their efforts and make it seem trivial in a way I guess.

MMM: How did you do it? How long have you been working on it?

I started by doing drawings and then realised I needed a plan, a path to follow so I scrapped that idea and started again by writing what I thought I would narrate over the top of the video. I wanted it to address the same issues as brought up in the Coles video but represent them properly and wholly. I wrote it off the cuff, after having written a letter to The Land for their editorial (after finding out it was way too long for what they wanted) which was researched using ABARE data and data and information from Dairy Australia as well as a few of my farmer contacts who are extremely experienced in the matter – I am always either text messaging or conversing with them either over the phone or in person about these issues.

I then went through the text I had written and wrote down a list of what I could draw to represent the points I was trying to make. It took me a couple of hours over two afternoons to make the drawings- of which I filmed on the floor with my iPad- and everything you see in the video is the first and only draft- there were no mistakes, no reshooting, or several tried at any of the pictures- they’re all the ones I drew off the cuff as I consulted my list I made. I think I made about 52 clips altogether.

I then had to work out how to record my voice (easy once I found the voice recorder on my computer), and then, compile and edit the clips to make the video. This is where I ran into a dead end. I didn’t think it was going to make it passed this. I had several ‘movie maker’ programs on my computer, didn’t know how to use any of them, and none of them did what I wanted them to do.

Two nights ago I finally found a program on the internet, downloaded it and spent the next 16 hours working on getting the clips to match the audio – which was not easy – especially when my ancient computer couldn’t deal with the needs of the program and wouldn’t let me preview anything before committing to making it a movie. And each time you commit, it took about one hour for it to process it, so after ‘making’ the movie 7 times, it was finally close enough to what I wanted and I was ready to post it! I even went as far as to looking up what the best time to post on Facebook was, and luckily my research told me the time I had planned.

MMM: How do you hope Coles, shoppers and dairy farmers will respond?

I hope it makes Coles realise that there are people out there ready to fight back against their sneaky spin. They will have to think harder to try and justify their moves, because if they lie or warp the truth again, I will be more than happy to come back at them again. Also, as I say in the video, I want them to stop denying that they are not having an effect on the price some farmers are getting for their milk, and on the industry as a whole. Because even if they are not having a direct effect, their effect is certainly indirect with the decreased sale in branded products and thus decrease in income and profits of the processing companies who ultimately need to pay the farmer.

I hope consumers will stop and think about what exactly is happening. I hope they think about the choices they make, and how it affects others. Ultimately it would be great to see more people boycotting generic brand milks and buying branded milk products, I think this is the only way we can combat the issue, as Coles is not going to budge anytime soon (unless they get done in the current investigation by the ACCC). I also want them to think about the information they are being fed, especially by such big powerful companies – not to believe everything they are fed!

For dairy farmers, I would like to see them agree with me as I hope I have done the right thing and represented them in a way that is honest and accurate. I want their approval basically. After their approval I would love them to all share the video around to everyone they know – why because it will get to more and more people, and most of them won’t be form a dairy background. And most of them do buy milk, and most likely buy it from a supermarket. Then we are educating our consumers for our ultimate benefit, for their support and hope that they will make conscious decisions at the supermarket and not just go for the cheapest alternative.

MMM: What has been the response so far?

So far the response has been somewhat unbelievable. It is what I wanted though. I want this to reach as many people as it can. One of my biggest passions is educating people about agriculture, especially about the dairy industry. At present I have had over 50 of my friends share the video on Facebook with who knows how many friends (and who knows how that keeps going), I have had numerous people share it on other pages on Facebook, and before I knew it, it had hit Twitter – I wasn’t even a part of Twitter (but I am now!). On YouTube itself, I have had 2788 views in not even 24 hours. The support has been fantastic as I was somewhat nervous, but the commendations have been all positive and really amazing!

The smoking gun: the numbers reveal Coles’ dairy damage

Please, just read this article by dairy analysts, xCheque, on the damage caused by the supermarket war. Some excerpts for you:

“The supermarket’s pricing strategy has squeezed the processors to near death and they have responded in the only way they can – attack their single largest cost of production – the milk price. In turn, the dairy farmers of northeast Australia have turned off the tap.”

“It is undeniable that Central & Northern NSW and Queensland milk production has dropped dramatically in the past two years.

“It is also undeniable that the southern exporting states are seeing no such effect – this is despite seeing a downturn in the global dairy industry over the last year.

“It is also undeniable that we haven’t seen a production drop like this since the period after dairy deregulation more than a decade ago.”

“Stop and think what you are doing Colesworths. You have taken a very blunt axe to the Australian dairy supply chain. In our view you are definitely in denial if you think that you and your shareholders have no responsibility for the long term social health and economic wealth of Australian agriculture.

“Editor’s note: Apart from the confirmation in milk production data, not much is new in this debate. Our subeditor (and all of us) were however particularly incensed at the most recent example of ignorance and insensitivity by Wesfarmer’s boss Richard Goyder. Clearly denial of responsibility goes right to the top of that organisation and there are no remaining traces of empathy with the company origins.”

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.