In a hard-hitting address, Mr Odgers called out the lack of unity and lack of respect as undermining the industry’s performance.
“I am going to start by saying as much as I love this industry, and I do, Australian dairy gets a little weaker every day,” he said.
The shocks and challenges of the past few years – including the milk price cuts in 2016, the protracted mining boom that kept the Australian dollar high, the demise of co-operatives, supermarket discounting, the removal of European Union quotas – meant many were questioning their future in the industry.
“Farmers are searching for margin and stable trading conditions in their farm systems at the same time as they are trying to navigate climate change, deeper droughts, heightened volatility in markets and access to resources,” he said.
All these had significantly influenced the Australian dairy culture.
“We are not as confident nor united as we used to be and therefore we do not present a united front,” Mr Odgers said.
“Now, many organisations are not always on the same page.”
Trying to deal with issues on a localised region, or state basis, was splitting the industry, and issues and potential solutions were not readily understood by others in the industry.
“We are more fragmented than I ever remember us being and it is undoubtedly hurting us all,” Mr Odgers said.
This had led to breakdown in industry relationships – and not just between processors and farmers.
“Relationship breakdown in some places (is) leading to behaviour which lacks respect,” he said.
“This industry must find its way back to getting along better and getting balance back into industry conversations and industry debate.
“In an ideal world, we would all take responsibility for that.”
We can’t be half-hearted, we need to back the Australian dairy industry in.
– Jeff Odgers
But Mr Odgers said the cultural decline could be turned around.
“We can change this, if we decide to actively change the way we think and the way we talk about our industry,” he said.
“At the core, we still have a good culture.”
Mr Odgers pointed to the response to the recent bushfires, the China Free Trade Agreement (dubbed the dairy deal) and the creation of the world-leading genetics research organisation DairyBio as examples of what could be achieved when the industry was united.
He called on the industry to embrace the opportunity presented by the Australian Dairy Plan’s proposals for reform.
“I think we all know that very few significant things are ever achieved without effort, without some sacrifice, without some compromise and even some pain,” he said.
“But it is worth the effort and we must lean into it as an industry.”
Mr Odgers said he genuinely believed an evolution of culture would come from the industry all working together through a national organisation.
“We can’t be half-hearted, we need to back the Australian dairy industry in,” he said.
“And in doing so we need to be objective about our performance, about our competitiveness, we need to care about our culture.
“The way we talk about ourselves can influence our culture and perceptions of industry.”