Milk shake out
by Marcus Browning Dairy farmers in Western Australia last week followed in the footsteps of other states and agreed to the deregulation of Australia's dairy industry. This means that as of July 1 this year the price of market milk (fresh drinking milk) paid to farmers will no longer be regulated, sealing the fate of thousands of dairy farms around Australia. Manufacturing milk, used in the production of powdered milk and cheese, has already been deregulated, part of a process begun in the 1980s by the then Federal Labor Government. At the moment state subsidies guarantee farmers a farm gate price of around 50 cents a litre. One of the claims of those driving deregulation is that the price to consumers will fall. This may be so in the short term but inevitably the major national retailers, such as Franklins, Coles and Woolworths, along with the growing monopoly in processing and dairying, will drive the retail price up. A $1.74 billion "adjustment package" will be paid by the Howard Government to usher smaller operators to the door, the smallest farms to be offered $45,000 up front to get out. And that's what this process is all about: "get big or get out". In order to survive in a deregulated market farms will have to be milking 400-500 cows producing 750,000 to 1.5 million litres of milk per year. Farm closures translate to loss of jobs and a major decline in the economies of rural communities already suffering under higher than average unemployment levels. Last year the Bega Valley Water Management Committee, in the southern coastal dairy town of Bega, commissioned a detailed study of the impact of deregulation on the local industry and community. Each farmer (most farms in the area are family owned) in the area was asked how they would be effected if their price of milk per litre dropped 5 cents, 10 cents and 15 cents. They estimated: * 5 cents — eight dairy farms would become unviable, affecting 25 family members and 10 non-family employees; * 10 cents — 70 farms would become unviable affecting 228 farm family members and 81 non-family employees; * 15 cents — 121 farms would become unviable affecting 397 family farm members and 137 non-family employees. Those 121 farms have together a yearly household and farm expenditure of $52.9 million, mostly put into the local economy. Monopoly In 1975 there were around 30,700 dairy farms; last year the count was 13,150. At the same time herd sizes have increased from an average of 77 cows in 1975 to 161 last year. In 1984-85 the industry's total production was 6,033 million litres; in 1998-99 it reached 10,178 million litres. This applies also to the main milk processors in Australia, the Italian- based Parmalat, Dairy Farmers and National Foods. Each are considering mergers with the other, with Dairy Farmers currently trying for a takeover of a smaller operator, Bonlac. These developments come together to form a classic picture of the monopoly process — an industry owned by a diminishing number of producers but with more assets and increased production.