Production has stalled in Australia's fourth-largest rural industry despite millions of dollars being spent to try to restore profitability, sustainability, and unity.
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Bega Valley farmer Phil Ryan describes the plan for his industry as a "missed opportunity".(ABC Rural: Josh Becker)

Key points:
The Australian Dairy Plan took two years and more than $2 million to develop
It was a major strategic planning initiative, charting a course forward for the industry
Farmers are divided over whether the plan, and subsequent work, has been worthwhile

The Australian Dairy Plan was formulated with the input of 1,500 dairy farmers from across the country.

It took almost two years to complete and cost an estimated $2.1 million.

The plan delivered five commitments designed to benefit the industry, however, farmers remain divided about whether it was all worth the time and money.

One key recommendation was the formation of a new national organisation incorporating policy, advocacy, marketing and research and development.

Dubbed ‘NewCo B’, this proposal was the result of an investigation carried out by the chairs of key industry bodies:

Australian Dairy Farmers, the peak national dairy advocacy group
Australian Dairy Products Federation, representing processors
Dairy Australia, the national services body; and
the Gardiner Foundation, a not-for-profit research, development, and extension organisation.

The group was chaired by former Victorian premier John Brumby.

Farmers argued the national body would have allowed the industry to speak with one united voice to government and consumers.

But Dairy Australia chair James Mann recently described it as “ambitious” when announcing that it could not be achieved.

Critics, however, say it was always destined to fail.

Was it a waste of money?

Farmer Power chief executive Garry Kerr described the dairy plan as “a joke”.

“The dairy plan was about a whole-of-industry body,” Mr Kerr said.

“We knew that wouldn’t work.

“Commonsense tells you that you can’t have processors involved in an advocacy group with dairy farmers.”

Dairy plan commitments:
There is significant reform to industry structures
More people and fresh capital are brought into the industry
The public has a higher level of trust in the industry
There are significant increases in the proportion of farmers with business plans
Trust is restored between farmers and processors

Bega Valley dairy farmer Phil Ryan said the process represented a lost opportunity.

“We could have been here a couple of years ago really, and that is disappointing,” Mr Ryan said.

“A lot of hard work did happen behind the scenes, but unfortunately it hasn’t had a material outcome for us.

NSW Farmers dairy committee chairman Colin Thompson said delivering the remaining commitments was a work in progress.

“Farmers are certainly disappointed. We envisaged something different. In the end, it wasn’t possible,” he said.

Question of funding advocacy

As a result, member-based dairy farmer advocacy groups like the United Dairyfarmers Of Victoria (UDV) must save money and rely more heavily on their membership base to fund their work.

“The primary issue is how we make the structure work with what we’ve currently got. But more importantly, how do we go about funding it,” Mr Mumford said.

Phil Ryan said there may be a way to achieve a united voice without crossing into agri-politics.

“There’s a lot of work that can be done in the advocacy space in policy development that isn’t agri-political, and we need to find ways of funding and resourcing that better,” Mr Ryan said.

Why did industry reform fail?

Dairy Australia chair James Mann said it had become apparent “restrictions prevented the use of [farmer levy funds] for agri-political activity”.

“[The] all-in-one industry model is unable to address the priority of a stronger and more unified industry voice as it cannot accommodate the requirement for independent representation,” Mr Mann said.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said government should not interfere in dairy advocacy.

“They need to own it. They need to lead it, and their members need to be passionate enough about that to be involved,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Because then you have a strong industry group that will be able to be loud and clear about its challenges that it wants government to face up to.”

Money well spent

Kaarinjeet Singh-Mahil, who has a dairy farm at Crossley in south-west Victoria, said the Australian Dairy Plan provided much-needed goals for the industry.

Ms Singh-Mahil said while industry reform was needed, the real benefit to farmers would come from efforts to secure a stronger workforce.

“[Industry reform] is not going to put money in our pockets,” she said.

“Apart from what happened in 2016, the one issue that has come closest to us saying ‘why are we doing this? Why don’t we stop?’ has been staffing.

“The fact it’s so hard to attract people to our industry to work within it has been an enormous challenge to us and I know to a lot of other farmers.”

The road ahead

Good seasonal conditions have made operating slightly easier for Australian dairy farmers.

However, some continue to leave the industry, and milk production has stagnated.

UDV president Paul Mumford said he and his peers had been tasked with investigating ways to shore up resources for advocacy work.

“That’s the challenge we’ve got and that’s going to be very difficult to achieve,” he said.

More immediately, he echoed comments from Mr Thompson that cooperation between advocacy groups, processors, and farmers would be critical.

Thirteen congressional members from New England are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to intervene on behalf of farmers left in the lurch by Danone SA, the French food giant that owns the Horizon Organic brand.

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