Two supermarkets, no farmers

A country with two supermarkets, but no farmers

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 9th March 2013.

In my last column I quoted ‘Farmer Bluey’, who runs a mixed farm producing not insignificant quantities of wool, wheat, oats and lamb. He is joining ‘all his friends’ and abandonding farming this year.

This week I’m going to introduce you to Oxley Island dairy farmer Jane Burney (now Jane Polson), who has a herd of 300 Stud Holsteins. Last July Jane became so outraged at the consequences to her industry of the $1 a litre milk price war between the supermarkets, that she fired off an angry post to the Facebook page of Coles. Here’s part of what it says:

The consumer is paying $1 a litre and the only winner here is the supermarket…Obviously it is cheaper to buy [produce] from overseas than from our country, grown in God knows what…Your latest ad campaign sprouting that you support Aussie growers is insulting…Eventually all the growers you so-called support will be out of business…The consumer will be stuck buying expensive, overseas produce…I am ashamed to watch your ads and us farmers burn in resentment when we do.

Now if you’re not a farmer, you may think Jane is exaggerating. But a couple of months ago the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released a Social Trends report on ‘Australian farming and farmers.’ Part of what it discusses are the changing demographics of farmers, as seen in this chart:

While the average age of the Australian farmer is now 53 (or 56, depending on which report you read), nearly a quarter of all farmers are over 65, compared to only 3% of the total workforce. We have thousands of farmers who are working past 75, and even past 85. Whatever happened to the principle of a dignified retirement and enjoyment of leisure at the end of a long working life?

The percentage of working farmers over 55 has risen from 26% of the total in 1981, to 47% in 2011. Just as worrying, the proportion of farmers under 35 has more than halved, from 28% of the total in 1981 to just 13% today.

My brother, a Federal public servant, retired  a couple of years ago at 55, and is now a man of nearly total leisure. I know he worked hard (though he wasn’t averse to the odd long Friday lunch!) – but was his work so much more valuable and important that he’s entitled to a relaxed and secure middle and old age, while such a prospect for many of our farmers, if it comes at all, will only be through a payout from a developer or mining company? Which of course raises a whole host of other questions about long term food security.

Farming generally has become so devalued that rates of suicide amongst farmers are nearly two and a half times the average for the workforce as a whole. Is it any wonder, then, that large numbers are joining Farmer Bluey and voting with their feet? In fact, according to a 2012 study carried out by accountants KPMG, no fewer than half of Australia’s farmers expect to leave farming in the next decade.

Meanwhile, delegates at this week’s ABARES ‘Future of Food and Farming’ conference were saying things like, ‘Australian agriculture has to become more globally competitive – we can’t afford a $7 minimum wage.’ So it’s not enough that we treat our farmers like dirt, we must create near slave-like conditions for agricultural workers in order to reach those holy grails of ‘increased productivity’ and ‘greater global competitiveness’.

Oxley Island Dairy Farmer Jane Burney (from the Australian)

It’s no coincidence that all this is happening as Coles’ and Woolworths’ share of the grocery market has doubled since the mid-1970s. I’ll leave the last words to Jane Burney, who ends with a brilliant piece of modern-day bone-pointing:


There is a growing backlash against your behaviour. Your suppliers and the community (your customers) are on to you. This dissatisfaction will grow to the point where the milk supply will be removed from you and placed back in the hands of cooperatives made up of dairy farmers, community reps and government. This is as is should be, as you have shown yourselves to be lacking in the vision, integrity and commercial strategic thinking required to be entrusted with such an important role re: key parts of our food supply and economy. History will look back on your behaviour over the last 10 years and say this was when the major supermarkets over-extended themselves, dodged their community obligations and ultimately destroyed their brands and shareholder value…Down, down? The only thing going down long term will be the Coles brand and its share price.

Jane’s post, by the way, has so far been ‘liked’ close to 77,000 times and generated nearly 5000 comments.

You can read the original post here:

And here is the extended version: