COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to supply chains across Australia yet as an essential industry, dairy has been able to maintain production and processing.
While at times workforce shortages have affected everyone, from dairy farmers to processors, the essential nature of milk production was thankfully recognised by governments – but that was not a given.
It has taken concerted and coordinated efforts, countless meetings and briefings and being on-call to governments seeking direction that have ensured that the dairy industry could operate through the pandemic.
As far as we are aware, no farmers have been forced to tip milk out of the vat, and while the industry has been stretched, we have found a way through the challenges thrown up.
There were plenty of those challenges though, and it took a determined, concerted effort to find workable solutions.
We know of processors who lost up to 40 per cent of their workforce due to stay at home and self-isolation orders and we applaud their determination to find a way to continue to operate.
We also know that these same kinds of workforce challenges hit farmers, creating enormous stress for some operations to simply get their cows milked.
The pandemic has changed the way the world operates, and the ADF has needed to be the voice of dairy farmers to ensure that they were not only heard but actions were taken to allow the industry to operate.
On reflection, the silver lining from the past two years is how the dairy industry has acted as one, providing advice to both state and federal governments to find workable solutions to issues like border closures, COVID-19 testing and home isolation and depleted workforces.
Coming together under the dairy industry’s Issues Management Framework, we have been a united industry – not farmers and processors but a combined group – with a common goal to keep milk on retailers’ shelves.
Through the likes of the COVID National Response Group, which brings the national dairy organisations together, we have battled this COVID-19 challenge together and done it well.
This is reflected in the fact that milk has been picked up from farms every day over the past two years.
All of this COVID-19 work has been completed on top of our normal lobbying efforts, yet we understood it must take priority to keep the industry operating.
Some of the best work in advocacy is completed behind closed doors, and we have been doing that collectively with dairy industry representative bodies as well as agriculture’s peak body, the National Farmers Federation.
We have also lent our knowledge to the dairy industry in New Zealand, sharing the understandings we have made in this complex COVID-19 world.
And if a measure of success is who calls the organisation to seek more information or to road-test ideas, then the ADF has succeeded given the constant interaction we have with the highest levels of government.
Things we have lobbied for include a national, risk-based approach to managing COVID-19.
Together with others, we asked for an isolation exemption for essential workers who are close contacts to return to work, providing they are asymptomatic, to ease workforce shortages in dairy businesses.
This would provide businesses with the flexibility to implement a risk-based approach and manage their workforces in line with their COVIDSafe plans.
We have lobbied to get uniformity in COVID rules across states to help make it easier for cross-state dairy farmers and to ensure that decisions made at National Cabinet are adopted at a state level quickly.
The time lag between the national decisions and their implementation at a state level causes issues, especially for those dairy businesses with a footprint in more than one state.
At a farm level, the Dairy Australia website was rebuilt to make information on COVID-19 easier to find. In one four-month period during the pandemic, these pages were visited almost 8000 times and nearly 5000 resources were downloaded.
The industry has largely been able to navigate constraints and maintain all critical production and processing activities, which is testament in part to the engagement of the industry and the quality of resources available to support dairy businesses find their way in a COVID-19 world.
As we move from pandemic to endemic, it is sensible measures like these, developed with a whole-of-industry approach, that will enable milk to be picked up from farms, processed and sold. Every day.