• Small, individually owned farms are disappearing as Australian farming slowly transitions to the US industrial model. (AAP)Source: AAP
The ‘dairy crisis’ has struck a nerve across the country, but how much is actually being done to support the farmers?
Ruby Hamad

1 Jul 2016 - 10:07 AM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2016 - 1:42 PM

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now

Our hearts are out of order.

With drought he’s gone to battle now,

Across the Queensland border.


Oh may the showers in torrents fall

And all the tanks run over.

And may the grass grow green and tall

In pathways of the drover.


-Henry Lawson, Andy’s Gone With Cattle, 1888


The block is awkward - it faces west
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.

Out on the patio we'd sit
And the humidity we'd breathe.
We'd watch the lightning crack over cane fields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

-GANGgajang, Sounds of Then, 1985


Written almost 100 years apart, the poetry of Henry Lawson and the lyrics of GANGgajang demonstrate the importance of farmers –and the cattle they raise - in the Australian national psyche.

Without Andy, life on the land is duller, bleaker, grimmer. All that can be done is to pray for his success against the elements.A century later, the outback, with its dichotomy of storm and drought is revisited in Sounds Of Then. Here, Australia is summed up in the stalwarts of cattle, cane fields and “heat haze”.

This enduring rural mythology has become central to how Australians see themselves.

Historian Dr Sofia Eriksson, who wrote her PhD on the observations of British travel writers in Australia in the decades leading to the birth of federation in 1901, says this is no accident. “The outback was the entire site of all attempts to establish what was specific and different about Australia to its British origins,” she explains.

As national legend goes, we are a nation living “off the sheeps' back”, owing our lives and gratitude to the farmer; he who is strong, rugged and wizened, but also humble.

And although cows are alien to this land, they are portrayed as more Australian than the native wildlife; apart from Andy the rover’s loyal dog, cows are the only animals that make an appearance in either of the two lyrical odes to Australia above.

“The role of the farmer - the hardworking, independent agriculturalist…that’s where the essence of the nation lies,” Eriksson says.

This was clearly apparent when, in May, The Project host Waleed Aly issued the “greatest call to arms” he’d ever made when he implored Australians to “eat more cheese” and pay extra for brand name milk.

His plea was in response to Australia’s two biggest milk processors, Fonterra and Murray Goulburn (who between them own 85 per cent of the milk processing industry), retrospectively slashing the price of milk solids to below the cost of production. The move forced already struggling farmers to repay them money.

“A kilo of milk costs $5 [to produce],” explains Dr Elizabeth Nolan, who lectures in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Sydney University.

“Imagine you thought you were going to be paid $5.60 and retrospectively you’re told it’s going to be between $4.75 and $5. You’ve suddenly lost $120,000 of income that you’ve already received.

“I just can’t imagine suddenly having to give back (so much) of my salary from last year.”

In the weeks since, the Victorian government granted $1.5 million in crisis funding, the federal government announced $555 million loan package, and ANZ gave a debt holiday to affected farmers.

But more interesting has been the outpouring of public support for “our farmers.” From “turning their backs on $1 a litre supermarket milk”, to signing petitions calling on Canberra to raise the floor price of milk to 50c a litre, Australians heeded Aly’s call.

Few, if any, other struggling industries receive as much public sympathy.

Too important to fail?

“There is definitely something about [animal farming] that seems to have some sort of sacred or culturally valorised connotations,” says Eriksson.

“Compare dairy farmers to taxi drivers,” she adds. “The taxi drivers are infamously hard-done-by. They make a really poor living; their working conditions are atrocious. When Uber is threatening their livelihood there is a bit of a murmur but there is by no means this sort of outrage if farmers are being threatened.”

Likewise, there has been no call to arms urging us to consume more print media to keep journalists in their jobs. Like farmers, digital media publishers are being hit by shady business practices, including online ad blockers, and social media giants such as Facebook monopolosing advertising revenue.

But there is no willingness to spend to save the media. Indeed, as Media Watch revealed, seven out of ten Australians in a poll said they “won’t pay for news under any circumstances”.

Why are Australians so determined to save dairy even as we watch other crucial industries dwindle?

There is definitely something about [animal farming] that seems to have some sort of sacred or culturally valorised connotations.

Tammi Jonas, a free-range pig and cattle farmer in the Victorian Highlands, and the president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), says it's because farmers provide basic sustenance, and food is unlike information which can be exchanged freely.

“You can’t democratise the food system to the extent that everybody grows their own food or accesses it from their neighbour,” she explains. “The density of cities and the lifestyle people lead make that prohibitively impossible so you have to keep relying on farmers.”

Nonetheless, there is something about the dairy crisis that seems to strike a nerve. As Sydney Morning Herald editor Judith Whelan noted on The Drum, few issues elicit as emotional a response as the dairy crisis. We are, Whelan said, expected, to make decisions about dairy consumption based not on economics but “national pride”.

This, says Eriksson, is because many Australians take the plight of farmers personally by because of their place in the construction of our national identity. “If you threaten the farmers, you threaten the idealised (image) ofthe nation,” she says.

And threatened is exactly what many dairy farmers are. As I write this Murray Goulburn has announced it plans on cutting the price of milk solids even further, while floods in Tasmania threaten to put more farmers out of business as many seem unlikely to take up the state government’s offer of yet another disaster loan; two more nails in the coffin of independent dairy farming.

“I feel for poor farmers but the dairy industry has changed,” Whelan said. “A lot of people are thinking that the dairy farmer is that struggling single person who’s getting up at 3am in the morning to milk the cows.

“In fact, the dairy industry also encompasses large agri-business. Farming itself has been adjusting to market changes. We live in a global world (and) we have to face some of the realities of it.”

The new reality of contemporary farming

As Whelan pointed out, small, individually owned farms are disappearing as Australian farming slowly transitions to the US industrial model. At the moment, intensive animal agriculture is largely confined to pork and egg production, but there are ominous signs that this could change to ensnare dairy production. 

“In America, something like 75 per cent of the dairy cows are now 100 per cent indoors. They’re feedlotted and they never go outside,” warns Tammi Jonas. “It’s not that way yet in Australia, thankfully. But if we let it keep going this way, it will be because they’re squeezing everything to try and make a living.”

Speaking of trying to make a living, despite the rhetoric of “our farmers”, very little is actually done to support them. Apart from disaster funding, farming is one of the least subsidised sectors by world standards.

“Since the 1960s we’ve gradually pulled back on the ongoing subsidisation of Australian agriculture,” Nolan says. “There’s almost none left.”

Government subsidies to farmers are measured in terms of a producer support estimate, measuring subsidies as a percentage of total farm revenue. According to the OECD, Australia’s producer support estimate is just 1.3 per cent. In comparison, the US has a PSE of 9.4 per cent and China 21.3 per cent.

“New Zealand is the only other country that gives even less,” says Nolan.

In other words, we may idolise farmers, but it’s an idolatry of pure symbolism. Despite all these odds, we expect farmers to succeed, and when they can’t, their failure to live up to the ideal image sees some succumb to depression and suicide.

Which brings us to the dawning reality of the declining demand for dairy. While it is certainly true that, as Jonas points out, “dairy has been part of human societies since forever,” and is unlikely to disappear altogether, consumption is falling as alternatives such as soy and almond milk continue to flood the market.

With one in six Australians now avoiding dairy products, are we holding onto something that the market itself is trying to regulate? Because many avoid dairy for health reasons, Nolan says the reduction simply reflects the nature of food fads that “rise and fall,” but Jonas warns of a bigger issue: the ethical implications of modern farming.

These include the standard practice of separating calves from their mothers almost immediately. Most of these ‘bobby calves’ are immediately sent to slaughter. “The concerns around bobby calves ending up in abattoirs at five days’ old drives a lot of women in particular away from dairy,” Jonas admits. “And I think the giant industrial system is part of what is doing that as well.

“The bigger and more invisible it gets the less people want to be part of it.”

Jonas and the AFSA call for a new system where small farmers sell directly to the community, something current regulation -set up to protect industrial supply chains- does not allow for.

“If we can bring it back to a level of connectedness where people see the farms and they see the cows are on the paddocks and they see the claves are being left with the cows… you maintain a healthier relationship to the industry and to the product.”

A changing world; a re-examined past

Essentially, Jonas is calling for modern farming to match what is still in our collective heads: the old, iconic image of the individual farmer.

But in a world of more than seven billion people, free-range animal agriculture has its own environmental and efficiency concerns. Indeed, as the effects of animal agriculture on climate change become known, the calls to decrease consumption of animal products grows louder.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced a plan to reduce that country’s meat consumption by half, a necessary measure to address climate change but one that would be unthinkable in Australia.

After all, This is Australia. Farmers are held close because of what we think they say about us; to do otherwise requires a re-examination of what it means to be Australian.

We live in an industrialised era that demands higher production on less land, a feat that both cannot be achieved by small-scale farming and that is disastrous for the environment.

But how well does the iconic image of the farmer represent contemporary Australia? The idealised farmer is a white prototype and his sacred cow -literally- is an animal that he brought with him when he took over this land, erased (or tried to) the Indigenous folklore, and remade the country and its terrain in his own image.

This, explains Dr Eriksson, betrays “a laboured attempt to create Australia, rather than a sort of organically, naturally emerging sense of Australianness.” Nonetheless, the cattle farmer - the backbone of the country- is up there with the digger; and like the digger, the myths we construct around him overpowers the reality.

Once upon a time, dairy farmers produced just enough to get by. But we live in an industrialised era that demands higher production on less land, a feat that both cannot be achieved by small-scale farming and that is disastrous for the environment.

In a world that is rapidly changing, and taking farming with it, we don’t necessarily love and want to protect farmers on their own merits, but because we can’t let go of a carefully-constructed but long-finished past.

The irony is, the more we hold on to this fantasy, the more “our farmers” will struggle as they try to fulfil their historical role.

Watch: Candidates in the country seat of Indi discuss the dairy crisis. 

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