AGAINST THE ODDS: Millbrook dairy farmers Roger and Nadine Blanch battle droughts, floods and falling milk prices.
AGAINST THE ODDS: Millbrook dairy farmers Roger and Nadine Blanch battle droughts, floods and falling milk prices. Toni Somes

Dairy farmers battle to stay in the business

THREE generations of Nadine Blanch's family have farmed dairy cows in the Millbrook area, west of Clifton.

Now with marginal milk prices, floods and market uncertainty, Nadine fears she and her husband Roger could be the last.

Last July, the young couple took over the dairy - established by Nadine's family, the Fiechtners - along with the neighbouring grain and cattle property owned by Roger's parents.

We are young, we want to be in the industry ... we're prepared to make changes and grow our operation to become million litre producers (annually) but there is very little incentive for us to stay.

It was a brave move but the bottom line was both loved the bush and believed in agriculture as one of Australia's essential industries.

A little over six months later, their confidence in the future is wavering.

Milk prices dropped within weeks of them taking over the dairy, now floods have impacted on feed crops planted along their land bordering the Condamine River and their off-farm income is in ruins.

The latter is a contract harvesting business Roger has run for more than a decade with his father, which relied on annual work in Central Queensland's grain growing region.

"Most of the crops in Central Queensland are grown on flood plains, which were just devastated last month," Roger said.

"It's a blow ... in 2011 we had the same thing happen in the Condamine region where we'd been doing a lot of work.

"So we're just going to have to sacrifice our headers, because we've lost all our work."

Roger said the floods were the last straw for a lot of the people they know "up there".

"So in terms of repayments on machinery, it will be 12 months until we could get income from harvesting, so rather than borrow money to pay off borrowed money, we'll have to sell.

"But this isn't just a story about us."

He said their challenging situation was mirrored by other farmers across our region, in the wake of ordinary prices, dry seasons and now the third flood in three years.

For Nadine, who grew up working alongside her parents in the dairy and has invested years and energy in breeding their Swiss Browns milking herd, it's a depressing scenario.

"When I was 16, my Dad got sick, so halfway through year 12, I came home to work full time and it's something I enjoy," she said.

"I've handled the milking and a lot of the tractor work since but it's the cows I love.

"If we got out of the dairy it won't be the getting up and milking mornings, and nights, I would miss ... but working with the cows and knowing all the effort we put into breeding the best we could has been wasted.

"That's the hardest part."

Yet her husband isn't prepared to give up the battle to stay in the bush.

He too, came home to work on his family's cattle and grain property at Chinchilla.

"I was 19 when I came home, 'cause Dad hadn't been well," Roger said.

"I'm determined to stay in agriculture. So if milk prices keep going down we won't have any choice but to get out of dairying but we won't leave farming.

"What gets me though is how there could be such a

huge gap in agriculture, between what it costs us to produce food and what that food is sold for in Australia."

For example he said, as dairy farmers, their input costs were high.

"We employ a nutritionist, we buy in what food for the cows we can't grow - but we do everything else we can ourselves and we are determined to produce a quality product."

That determination has seen them invest close to $15,000 worth of machinery and improvements in their dairy in the past few months in their quest to improve efficiency and production.

"We are young, we want to be in the industry ... we're prepared to make changes and grow our operation to become million litre producers (annually) but there is very little incentive for us to stay."

However, when it comes to shifting industries like dairying from a marginal industry back to a viable one, this down-to-earth young farmer reckons "it's going to take a better brain than mine".

He would like to see greater government involvement in pricing and the re-introduction of market regulations.

"I am not saying I want to see the whole thing controlled, but I do think prices for essential goods like milk should have a floor price so they aren't sold below the cost of production.

"I know most people are, like us, on a budget, so they are going to buy the cheapest milk in the supermarket.

"So I guess what milk processors and government have to ask is ... do they, in the longer term, want to have dairy farmers in Australia or are they happy to outsource that as well?

"Farmers can't keep borrowing money to grow food: there needs to be some market protection and support in place if consumers want to keep buying Australian-grown produce.

"We don't want to have to keep crying out help, help, help.

"We do what we do well; we're cost efficient, we care for our environment, we produce quality food.

"So in return, we need government pricing structures in place that don't leave family-owned farms at the mercy of large corporations."

While the couple know they have youth on their side, they worry about the impact droughts, flooding rains and erratic markets are having on their older neighbours.

"The fact is, there aren't many young people left in agriculture, you go to a meeting with 70 farmers and 10 might be under 40," Roger said.

"And I think a lot of them are doing it tough.

"If people were open about the situation they are actually in, especially after this flood, I think you would be surprised how many people - who are good farmers and have been in the industry a long time - are not where they would like to be.

"We've taken on two family farms, one which has a reasonable amount of debt and we need to be able to service that debt," Roger said.

"So we're doing everything in our power to try to make this decision work."

It's a call Nadine agrees with completely.

She would like to be in a position to hand over the dairy to her daughters, if any of them were keen enough to opt for a career in agriculture.

"But at the moment if you asked me 'do I want my children to go dairy farming?' I would say definitely not."

An insider's opinion...

Farmers can't keep borrowing money to grow food. There needs to be some market protection in place if Australian consumers want to keep buying Australian grown produce.



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