Industry’s ‘golden age’ long gone

By Alana Christensen

For former dairy farmer Phillip Rothwell, the 1980s was the ‘‘golden age’’ of dairy.

Prices were high and Kraft, to which he supplied at the time, had just announced increases for four pools of milk he’d produced between 1977 and 1980.

A letter from February 6, 1980 that Mr Rothwell has kept advises a retroactive price rise of one cent per kilogram to the last six months of 1977, a 3¢/kg rise from July 1978 to June 1979, and a 3¢ rise for the last six months of 1979 followed by a final 9¢ step-up.

The final price rise put milk prices at $8.65/kg in today’s money, and is a stark contrast to the retroactive price step-downs experienced during the milk price crisis.

Mr Rothwell recalls that water was plentiful back in the 1980s and early ’90s, and there was strong support for the booming dairy industry in northern Victoria.

Having moved to Katunga from Gippsland in the mid 1950s after his father Thomas received a Soldier Settlement block, Mr Rothwell has witnessed many changes in the region.

After coming across dozens of his father’s and his own milk receipts, Mr Rothwell said it was an interesting way to look back at how dairying had changed during the years.

Back in the 1950s, when milk was paid for with pounds, shillings and pence, measured in pounds and collected by Murray Valley Co-operative, you could expect to make about $5.82/kg in today’s money.

These days the average Victorian price received for a kilogram of milk solids is $5.04, almost 80¢/kg less than Mr Rothwell’s father received in the autumn of 1956.

Now retired from the dairy industry, having given up his herd of Jerseys and sold the Katunga property to enjoy retirement with his family, Mr Rothwell still follows the industry.

Rising water prices, lower farm gate prices and farmers leaving the industry have changed its landscape from how Mr Rothwell remembers it in the earlier days.

And with large-scale investment by companies such as Fonterra and Freedom Foods, all of which have cited a need to boost capacity, Mr Rothwell said he could not help but wonder where the milk was coming from.