The milk wars

When I started this blog I promised myself I wouldn’t post anything negative here. All you get is recipes, produce and producers that inspire me. There are a couple of times I’ve wanted to post about milk, but I’ve refrained. Today however, I want to write about the milk wars by telling you about the wonderful milk that is available when you don’t buy it from your supermarket.

By way of background, in 2000, the Hon Joe Hockey MP, who was then the Minister for Financial Services and Deregulation, spearheaded a process which led to the Australian State Governments abolishing farmgate price controls for drinking milk. Before deregulation, drinking milk was bought from farmers at prices prescribed by State governments. These prices were adjusted periodically. In 2000, the average price across Australia was 47 cents a litre. Indeed, deregulation meant that Australian consumers had reliable access to cheap milk. But for a range of reasons, including the inability to withhold or stockpile supply, the bargaining power of dairy farmers post deregulation was drastically reduced. In the six months after deregulation, the average profit margins of Australian milk processors decreased by an average of 18 per cent. Like many other industries, deregulation led to a spiral to the bottom. While deregulation was bad news for many in the local dairy industry, it also allowed farmers to process their own milk for the first time. Since the supermarkets began their milk wars, vying for customers by selling house branded milk for $2 for two litres, it is this particular deregulation that has been the industry’s main weapon to return fire. All over the country, though in some places more than others, farmers are bottling their own milk and taking back control of their own livelihoods.

In my opinion, dairy farmers are entitled to make a profit from their milk. It certainly costs more than $2 to produce two litres of milk and the more people that are included in the process of getting the milk from the cow to you, the more people there are to make a profit. Personally, I value the work of the farmer above and beyond the work of the wholesaler, supermarket conglomerate, retail manager and checkout chic. Nothing against the average Joe, or Jane, working in your local supermarket, but I just don’t rate the system that employs them. I do value time tested practice of keeping healthy cows and milking them. If you value your milk, and the dairy industry, expect your milk to cost a lot more than $2 for two litres.

Good quality milk from healthy, grass fed cows (Australian cows are overwhelmingly grass fed) is a highly nutritious foodstuff. In addition to the calcium we all know is contained in milk, it’s a good source of protein and the fat soluble vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is required for good vision, immune health and for normal growth and development of body tissues. Vitamin D plays an important role in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus and is essential for healthy bones and teeth. Because these vitamins are fat soluble, reduced fat milk contains less of them. Milk naturally only contains about three and a half per cent fat, which really isn’t very much. So there’s not a great deal of value in buying reduced fat milk.

If you haven’t picked it up yet, I live in Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory. I know I am blessed to have access to a regular and truly wonderful farmer’s market. I am very grateful to the Rotary Club of Hall, for starting the Capital Region Farmers Market and running it for all these years. I am also very grateful to Tamara Arnold, the Market Manager for all the hard work she does, ensuring the best possible mix of stallholders and produce, enforcing the market rules that ensure we have an optimum market experience, knowing with certainty we are buying fresh produce from the producer. I also buy my fresh produce from Choku Bai Jo who have outlets in Curtin and North Lyneham. In my mind, the very point of milk, and sustainable food systems, is that they should be local. In modern, urban contexts, I think local is a relative term. To me, what it doesn’t mean is buying from a nationwide distribution source. What it does mean is consciously buying from producers as close to your home as possible, from supply systems that are as direct as possible. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on milk that I’ve had that’s local to me.

Country Valley Milk is processed in Picton, 210 kilometres from Canberra. Country Valley was the first ‘local milk’ I tried. I saw their stall at the Capital Region Farmers Market for a long time before I actually bought a bottle because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much it cost. When I started earning a little more money, I gave it a try and was amazed by the quality difference. It tastes so great! It’s available in one or two litre bottles, in full fat, low fat and skim varieties. You can also choose from the organic or non-organic range. I try to buy organic produce, and always buy their organic milk. Country Valley source their milk from about eight different farms in their region. These days, if I want Country Valley milk now, I buy it from Choku Bai Jo. It is also available in the Wiffens chain of fruit and vegetable stores around Canberra, including in the Canberra Centre and Belconnen Fresh Food Market.

Highland Organics produce unhomogenised organic milk in Moss Vale, New South Wales, about 160 kilometres from Canberra. In 1999, Bill Smillie attained organic certification for the farm and began processing their milk with Country Valley in Picton and also sold it to South Coast Dairy. In 2009 the family opened their own factory from where they bottle their own milk and produce a range of organic cheeses.

Bodalla Dairy Shed bottles unhomogenised milk in one or two litre bottles, with the option of buying into a glass bottle exchange program, where you give the glass bottle back each time so you essentially only pay for the milk, not the bottle. If you loose the bottle, you have to pay for a new one next time. It’s a small operation, bottling milk from the one farm. In addition to normal milk, they produce a range of old fashioned flavoured milks. The milk tastes great and I LOVE the glass bottle scheme. I ‘discovered’ Bodalla dairy on the way home from a weekend down the coast and can’t wait for them to come to the Capital Region Farmers Market, but I understand their milk products are available closer to Bodalla. Bodalla is about 200 kilometres from Canberra.

This morning I purchased my first bottle of Jersey milk from ABC in Tilba. Jersey milk is high in both protein and fat. It tastes incredible: rich and luscious! I remember noticing the decline in Jersey population in Australia when I was young and being told that people wanted lower fat milk than what Jersey’s provided. I think Jersey’s are beautiful cows, so I was sad at the time. I’m very glad to see that companies like South Coast Cheese at the ABC cheese factory in the Tilba Tilba Valley, about 235 kilometres from Canberra, are bottling the good stuff for me (and you) to enjoy. I would highly recommend it to you.

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8 Responses to The milk wars

  1. Great post, but frankly I am still extremely disappointed that Country Valley is no longer allowed at Capital Region Farmer’s Markets.

    • Tash says:

      Is that why I haven’t been able to find them! Why is it not allowed anymore? Their organic milk tasted like the old days when English milkmen used to leave cold bottles on the doorstep.

  2. Nick Padol says:

    Well done Susan, good article.

  3. Josie says:

    You’ve said it all, Susan!
    People are so confused by ad campaigns and all the conflicting information out there. It’s lovely to be able to buy all the fresh food we need at the CRFM. No annoying jingles, no ads screaming at you from the shelves, you can get great info on unfamiliar produce and you start to trust your own instincts again.
    Talking to the producers of the food you buy helps build up an idea of all the work that goes into getting it to market and you see where your money goes.
    I saw something recently that said buying processed food sees only about 8% of your food dollar go to the farmer, while buying from farmer’s markets sees around 80 – 90 % going to the farmer.
    I spend a similar amount to what I would have at a grocery shop on most things and I’m happy to pay more for others, especially milk and cheese.
    You really do get what you pay for.

  4. Jane says:

    Thanks so much Susan for this article and being so passionate about your milk. It’s sad to think that bottled water these days is more expensive than milk… We are thrilled you tried and loved Bodalla Dairy. Mum will be touched – I’ll tell her tomorrow (she is not so good with technology). We look forward to seeing you soon, x Jane (Bodalla Dairy)

    • Susan says:

      Aww shucks! Thanks Jane! Thanks for the message! I hope I can come backto the diry soon, and I really REALLY hope you can come to market. I love what you guys are doing, and would love some of that fromage blanc you make too!

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