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Dairy farmer says exodus could have been prevented if supermarkets passed on milk price increases

Lydia Burton, Elly Bradfield and Nathan Morris, Friday October 4, 2019 - 14:33 EST
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The Priebbenow family used to produce nearly 1 million litres of milk a year. - ABC

Another Queensland dairy farmer forced to send his herd to the meatworks says it may not have come to that if major supermarkets had passed on milk price increases.



This month, after nearly 60 years of dairying on their Greenmount farm near Toowoomba, the Priebbenow family sent the last of their milking herd away in a truck.

"Our cows are going to be hanging on a hook in a fridge," Scott Priebbenow said.

Accompanying the regret at his situation is sharp frustration.

"I feel let down, I feel shattered, I feel sad; it's just so easy to fix this — that's why I'm so angry," he said.

On top of a relentless drought and growing costs, Mr Priebbenow said the final straw was the price squeeze by major supermarkets.

"It's the supermarkets — you dirty, rotten, mongrel bastards," he said.

"How dare you put the price up and not pass it on to the farmers?"



Not just supermarkets that need profits

In August, Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi increased the price of their home brand milk products by 10 cents, .

"I understand that your processor and your supermarket have to make a profit, but we do too," said Brendan Hayden, state councillor with the Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation (QDO).

"Due to these ongoing whole-of-market cost pressures, we have reviewed and adjusted the price of Woolworths milk," said Woolworths in a statement.

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Mr Hayden said there were cost pressures for all dairy farmers; the only difference was they were at the bottom of the production chain.

"My input costs have gone up every month, they go up monthly, and I can't pass it on to anyone," he said.

In August, Woolworths, Coles and Aldi .

They generally welcomed the move away from $1-a-litre milk but pointed to a higher farmgate milk price as the reason the price was not passed on to producers.



Exodus of dairy farmers

Aged 83, Chesley Priebennow remembers when there were 24,000 dairy farmers on the Darling Downs — today, there are less than 330 in the state.

"This is the first time that we've ever had to sell the dairy herd," Mr Priebbenow said.

"It's like losing my my right arm. I've lost my right arm because this morning, the last load of cows drove out."

With the drought causing production costs to soar, the Priebbenow family are just one of many now being squeezed out of the Queensland dairy industry.

"We have this problem now with the exodus we have from the industry, it's frightening," Mr Hayden said.

"Since March, there's been a dozen farmers go on the Downs and the Scenic Rim, and there's just no end in sight."



At the core of the problem is an imbalance between cost and price.

"Feed costs are not being covered by our milk sales," Mr Hayden said.

"Hay costs, silage costs, chemical costs — just in dairy detergents alone — electricity, everything has gone up, three, four fold, but our milk price has stayed the same."

Queensland importing milk

He said dairy farmers were stuck being paid well below $1 per litre for a perishable product.



"You just can't put it in a silo and wait for the prices to go up; it has to go every two days," he said.

The impact of more Queensland dairy farmers leaving the industry is projected to create a milk deficit of 150 to 160 million litres.

Currently Queensland is importing milk from southern states, and this looks set to continue if not enough local milk is being produced.

Drought or national disaster?

Mr Priebbenow sees the ongoing dry weather as more than a drought.

"How about we stop calling this a drought? How about we start calling this a national disaster because it's gone on way too long," he said.



He said any efforts by the Federal Government would come too late for his family.

"There's a $4 billion National Disaster Relief Fund, but it's only coming out in June next year," Mr Priebbenow said.



The only positive, if there is one at all for the Priebbenows, is that by selling their milking herd, they have stemmed the unsustainable accrual of debt.

For the next 10 months they have temporarily suspended supply with their processor while they figure out their next business move.

They have hung onto a couple of dozen younger cattle and a few milkers.

"We'll milk two or three because mum's been milking cows for 57 years and if she can't touch a cow every day it's going to be sad for her," Mr Priebennow said.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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