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Dairy themes echoed at final workshop

By Jeanette Severs

THE DAIRY Plan consultations in Gippsland followed a similar path to the 19 that preceded them — with similar issues raised and recommendations made.

About 1000 people registered to participate in the nation-wide consultation — in many of the 22 workshops, about half the participants were dairy farmers. Which begs the question, how to engage most of Australia's remaining dairy farmers in shaping this five-year industry plan?

Gippsland was the last port of call for the consultation round — with three held across the region, in Warragul, Maffra and Leongatha.

Ebony Arms, of Neerim South, attended the Warragul workshop and spoke to Dairy News Australia afterwards.

“Ownership of property was identified as a big issue for young and new dairy farmers,” she said.

Ms Arms said there was also concern about the morale of dairy farmers, given recent prosecutions for trespass. She took the opportunity to raise her concerns with past Victorian premier John Brumby, who is chair of the Australian Dairy Plan and attended the Warragul workshop.

“There was a lot of concern raised about animal activists. I told him prosecutions need to be fairer to the industry; that will help farmers feel proud of their industry,” she said.

What was unique about the Maffra workshop was the number of young people among the 24 dairy farmers who participated. This representation was picked up by long-term agri-politician and retired dairy farmer Alex Arbuthnot.

“The usual industry people were here at Maffra, but it was good to see the young farmers here today,” Mr Arbuthnot said.

“We have exciting opportunities in the industry. Young people want to work in dairy. There are opportunities to use technology on farm. Our industry needs to expand in Asian markets. But energy and water are the two big issues hindering dairy businesses and the cost of production.”

According to the workshop facilitators and Gardiner Dairy Foundation chair Bruce Kefford, similar themes emerged at all the workshops. A shakedown of concerns was encapsulated among a 'top four or five' priorities. But what was most interesting were the concerns that were voiced before being encapsulated under generic headings.

The Maffra workshop was attended by about 50 people. The top priorities going forward were consolidating industry representation to one voice; to strengthen and consolidate education and extension pathways; and equal voting was applied to cross-industry emphasis on methods that enable dairy workers and farmers to improve their farming and business management skills, to promote the quality and nutritional value of dairy products and to promote the industry's social licence to operate.

Shortly behind was a focus on using technology, including virtual reality, to bring agricultural education and farm tours into the classroom, so children are exposed to learning about how their food is produced. This was a clearly identified pathway to improving community perception of farming and related back to environmental stewardship and the social licence to farm, as well as exposing students to potential careers available in agriculture.

Maffra workshop attendee Blake Randall, recently began working on a dairy farm at Boisdale. He said he would never have become a farm worker if he took the advice of school teachers. He was one of a number of dairy farmers at the Maffra workshop who encouraged the development of clearly articulated pathways for agricultural education from primary school to university level.

“Education needs to be accessible for workers and farmers. We can't take a lot of time off farm,” he said.

“The industry also needs to increase community awareness of the value of farming as a career.”

Michelle Axford of Korumburra said research and development was 10 years disconnected and education pathways had crumbled.

“We should be looking outside Australia at research and development already undertaken, that complements what we've done,” Ms Axford said.

“Don't reinvent the wheel.

“We also need strong, accessible education pathways — encouraging professional development among older farmers is as important as mentoring and training activities for young farmers.”

Nambrok dairy farmer Steph Bullen said every farmer was responsible for community perception about the dairy industry.

“The industry needs to be willing to talk openly about issues and practices around good animal welfare and environmental stewardship. Don't be softly, softly on issues,” she said.

“Each farmer is responsible for community perception about their farm practices; industry organisations need to communicate how we manage our farms.”

Her view was endorsed by Jeanette Howie, of Denison, who said the general community was unaware many dairy farmers had invested significantly in improving agricultural practices to benefit the environment. She said industry advocacy was important to communicate these changes.

Concerns were voiced about perceived homogeneity of the industry. Wilco Droppert, of Clydebank, advocated for streamlining industry organisations to one levy-funded representative body.

“We need to have our debates and discussions privately, then decide on what our core message is and make that opinion publicly,” he said.

“We need to unite our whole industry,” said Raelene Hanratty of Upper Maffra West.

Mr Droppert also said it was important to encourage diversity in the industry, for dairy farmers to respect alternate ways of farming and for organisations to actively seek a diverse membership at board level.

Mr Droppert's views were endorsed by Lukas Randle, a dairy farmer at Boisdale.

“We need to consolidate to one peak body and recognise the value of farmers' time. Today we've seen a consensus for farmers to turn around their view of the industry and be proactive about changing it,” Mr Randle said.

Dairy Australia board director Graeme Nicoll said there were many people willing to advocate for the dairy industry but the challenge was agreeing what the topic of advocacy should be. This reflected the diversity of the dairy industry across Australia.

His view was endorsed by Bruce Kefford, who said the challenge in developing a single strategy was to agree about the priorities.

“It'll be up to the four partners [Dairy Australia, Gardiner Dairy Foundation, Australian Dairy Farmers and Australian Dairy Products Federation] to make a judgment call on what priorities will benefit and strengthen the industry,” Mr Kefford said.

“The number one issue and opportunity is getting more on-farm profitability, from changing business practices and farmers smoothing their costs. Management requirements are critical to meet the challenge of variable markets.

“The dairy manufacturers have to be part of increasing farm profit and sharing risk with farmers.

“Dairy farmers need profits to provide milk. Manufacturers need milk. Everyone has a vested interest in the supply chain.

“The dairy manufacturers can help by offering longer-term contracts, flattening the milk curve and taking price fluctuations out of the margins.

“Dairy farmers can help by lowering their costs of production — building relationships with processors for longer-term contracts and forward contracts with fodder suppliers are two available options.

“My personal opinion is the peak-trough ratio has to go back up.”