Why not have a whinge when we deserve it, after all?

On Tuesday, I was given the opportunity to have a really good cathartic whinge on Melbourne radio and I almost took it. The announcement of an increase in public transport fares prompted 774ABC radio host Mark Holden to ask for examples of what’s gotten cheaper.

The obvious answer is milk, of course! So I rang in and said consumers were getting a great deal on milk, which is at 1992 prices. He wanted to know whether farmers are doing it tough as a result. Now the answer to that question is complex and I wasn’t going to try to explain it all in five seconds so I said that, yes, one in three dairy farmers had left the land since deregulation but that Australians are among the world’s most efficient dairy farmers and that allowed us to deliver low prices. Now that’s a strange message, isn’t it?

It means that instead of whingeing about low prices, we can be incredibly proud of being able to deliver them. Most importantly, we can be incredibly proud of the shape we’re in: we haven’t succumbed to a factory farming model.

  • 98 per cent of Australian dairy farms are family farms rather than corporations
  • The average herd size is 220 (small enough to know every cow)
  • Our cows enjoy “cowness”, as Tammi Jonas would put it, free to roam the paddocks

In other words, our farming practices have become more and more professional without compromising the ethics that guide all the farming families I know: love of animals, love of land. We have a great story to tell and we should shout it from the rooftops!

The whingeing farmer

Farmers are infamous for never being happy with the weather. For years, we’ve been battling awful conditions – unreliable or non-existent autumn breaks, short springs and searing summers. The one blessing has been warmer and therefore more productive than normal winters.

This year, though, has been one out of the box. The landscape remained a verdant green right through summer and, with a precious bank of water in the soil, I took the opportunity to convert plenty of pastures from annual to perennials and when the “whole hog”, fully cultivating beautiful seed beds.

My gamble may still pay off but right now, the strategy has come back to bite me. The sun refuses to shine, the rain continues and that bank of soil moisture has been continually topped up to the point that very little of the new pasture is trafficable at a time when it desperately needs fertiliser and a trim. We may not be able to let the cows into some paddocks until spring.

So, as I type this post on a cold, wet, sunless day, I’m afraid I live up to the stereotype of the whinger. I have a good excuse but no good reason –  exposed to commodity price cycles, currency fluctuations, all the normal business hazards and mother nature herself, farming is innately a risky business but still we choose it as a way of life. After all, an affinity with mother nature is what binds us to it.