The One Thing That Could Help This Farming Family Through Drought
"The control rests with supermarkets, but the problem is they pit the processor against the farmer."
Tony Biffin’s family has called their dairy farm home for more than 100 years, weathering the elements for two milkings a day since 1912.
“Births, deaths and marriages, I say. We haven’t missed a beat,” his wife Debbie told ten daily, on their Cawdor property, on Sydney’s outskirts.
Now, with draining water and dwindling finances, the one thing Tony says he needs to survive is a “decent” price for his milk.
A crippling drought is taking hold of much of Australia’s east, with virtually all of New South Wales and 57 percent of Queensland now in drought or drought affected. For some, it has been years.
For Tony, the current conditions are “as bad as it gets”.
“It has been two years since we’ve had any worthwhile rain, so that’s zero pasture growth which we rely on to feed the animals,” he said.
“We have enough water storage for about four years, normally, but the evaporation rates are so dire. I’m estimating we have about three months until we’re completely out.”
Tony’s son Todd has worked on the farm for ten years since leaving school. His now ten-month-old son Jesse doesn't know what decent rain sounds like.
“It certainly crosses my mind when we get a tiny shower that he has hardly seen any rain at all,” Todd told ten daily.
“It obviously doesn’t mean a lot to him at the moment, but I hope one day it will.”
The Biffins have 280 cows on their property, 120 of which are milked twice a day. Normally, they would contract another property nearby to hold 40 heifers. But right now, they're all at home.
“The boys are going flat out every day,” Debbie said.
“Tony always says he isn’t going to be the one to let the generations down. It’s really sad.”
“The day is basically filled from the moment you wake up to dark,” explained Todd. “With things as they are at the moment, all you have time to do is your chores -- milking and feeding animals,” he said.
Like many farmers across the country’s south-east, extra feed is costing the Biffins about $7000 a week -- and it's becoming increasingly scarce.
Tony said he has already probably exceeded the state government’s $20,000 cap on transport subsidies, announced last week. “It was generous and I don’t want to belittle that, but we are transporting a lot of feed in at a big cost,” he said.
“We are losing about $2,500 a month just trying to keep the animals alive, and it’s going up, in some instances, 10 to 15 percent every load.”
The exorbitant costs are forcing the family to dip into their savings that Tony had pooled for about two years.
“We have tried to be our own bank over the years, but our entire income is here,” he said.
“It will be about six months before we will need to start selling animals.”
Right now, though, they can’t afford to slow down.
“In our case, we have to keep producing. We can’t cut back on the amount of milk our cows produce,” he said.
“Dairies are among the worst industries to be in during drought -- your costs stay the same, and you can’t scale back.”
‘The greatest help’
The Biffins have tapped into the New South Wales government’s Farm Innovation Fund to build hay sheds and clear their dams of silt.
They have an appointment booked in with a rural financial counsellor. Tony believes his family would now be eligible for the Farm Household Allowance, after the federal government lifted the net assets cap from $2.6 million to $5 million.
But he says the greatest help would be an upped price for their milk.
“I calculated that about two extra cents per litre of milk would make all the difference to us,” he said.
Milk prices have remained a complex and enduring issue for dairy farmers across the country since the 2016 ‘dairy crisis’, but one Tony says is exacerbated by drought.
Australia’s largest dairy processor, Saputo, in June announced an opening farmgate milk price at 49.6 cents per litre for suppliers in the NSW-Sydney region -- including the Biffins.
“At the moment, the cost of producing a litre of milk is well above what we are receiving for it at the retail end. It needs to be around 52 or 53 cents to break even -- at least in New South Wales,” he said.
The Biffins supply milk to Saputo, but are caught up in contracts between the food processor and supermarkets.
"The control rests with supermarkets, but the problem is they pit the processor against the farmer," he said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recommended a mandatory code to address such imbalances following an industry review released in April. Just last month, Saputo backed the watchdog’s call that would give farmers more bargaining power in terms of price negotiation.
Some dairy lobby groups have called the move a swift change in tack -- as Chief Executive Lino Saputo told The ABC he had changed his mind -- and others have called on other processors to do the same.
“Currently, processors can impose milk prices and other terms of milk supply contract terms that are heavily weighted in their favour. Some milk supply contracts also contain terms that restrict farmers’ ability to change processors for a better offer,” NSW lobby group Dairy Connect CEO Shaughan Morgan said.
“These issues ultimately harm dairy production efficiency and reduce competition between processors.”
Industry movements aside, Tony believes the “fairly complex” issue wouldn’t take much to fix.
“Would people be happy to pay two or three cents more to see dairy farmers survive?”
If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels, Aussie Helpers or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.