Dairy men bring city to a stop

12 Jul, 2014 04:00 AM

THE year is 1976. Malcolm Fraser is Prime Minister - and nearly 10,000 dairy farmers are marching from Flagstaff Gardens up to Parliament House in Spring Street, Melbourne.

International dairy prices have just collapsed and it was having a huge financial toll at the farmgate.

Bill Pyle - who was a very familiar agri-political face in Stock & Land throughout the 70s and 80s - can remember the moment like it was yesterday.

It brought Melbourne to a standstill.

Elected as the very first president United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) in 1976, he stayed in the top job until 1985.

He said the big march to Parliament House was the culmination of several protests in regional areas such as Leongatha, attracting up to 5000 farmers.

The ultimate aim was to persuade State and Federal Governments to underwrite a much-needed price at the farmgate of 55 cents/pound (lbs)/fat.

"The opening price in July 1976 would have been around 30c/lbs/fat," Mr Pyle said.

"We knew at the time that it would be worth 70c/lbs/fat later on, but the factories would not guarantee price because of the situation on the international market.

So in May and June of that year, the UDV held marches all around the State to protest."

And on the day that 10,000 farmers took to the streets to Melbourne with their cows and tractors in tow, it triggered an almost instantaneous response.

"By the time we got to Spring Street, we had all levels of Government saying they would underwrite the milk price," he said.

"But we knew we had to get together as an industry to get that result."

Mr Pyle said it was massive undertaking, but it also achieved a huge result.

The changes meant farmers were provided with some much-needed cash-flow at a time when the industry was in extreme financial pain.

Profitability was the driving force behind much of UDV's lobbying efforts at the time, he said.

UDV was formed in response to the then State agriculture minister Ian Smith's calls for a unified dairy industry.

"He was being given information from three different dairy farmer organisations about what to do - and basically decreed that they had to form as one group," he said.

Fragmentation had been a long-standing issue, with the Victorian Dairy Farmers Association, the Milk Producers Association and the dairy division of the Victorian Farmers Union all trying to reach different outcomes for the State's producers.

"It was a confusing time," Mr Pyle said. "Farmers were not listening to each other and not cooperating."

After 1976, when UDV was founded as Victoria's peak dairy lobbying group, Mr Pyle said he knew some big changes were needed to improve the improve the industry - and make it viable.

The organisation soon boasted 90 branches and 20 different district councils.

Of the State's 17,500 dairy farmers at the time, about 60 to 70 per cent of producers signed up at a rate of $30 a head.

"Farmers price had dropped by well over 50pc," Mr Pyle said.

"The membership price was a lot of money at the time, but economic pressure made everyone toe the line and join up."

The intention was to achieve a united and profitable industry.

Mr Pyle was 40-years-old at the time, and said the industry was being run by 70-year-olds.

"We knew nothing was going to change unless we made changes to the system," he said.

One of the first issues he turned his attention to was milk contracts.

About 10pc of dairy farmers were supplying 90pc of the milk to Melbourne under market arrangements.

But Mr Pyle said it was not a fair situation, because only a few producers were receiving a premium for their product.

"From a point of view of fairness, we set about phasing those contracts out," he said.

While only a small amount of Victoria's milk was sold at the higher market rate as liquid product, he said phasing out the contracts meant everybody could get an even slice of the pie.

"It bumped up the milk cheque a small bit," he said.

"Every little bit counted."

Mr Pyle not only fought for better returns though, he was also a strong believer in the benefits of research and development.

He said the establishment of the Australian Dairy Herd Improvement Scheme (ADHIS) in 1979 (and the introduction of Australian Breeding Values in 1983) played a huge role in speeding up genetic development - and improving the nation's cows.

"That was a giant step forward," he said.

Sitting on the ADHIS board as chair from the beginning, Mr Pyle said ABVs did more to impact the genetics of Australia's than anything else in the past 100 years.

He said improvements in dairy productivity due to technology and R&D over the past 40 years had been amazing.

The important thing to remember, he said, was how far productivity had come as a result.

In 1970, Australia produced seven billion litres of milk from three million cows, milked by 60,000 farmers, but today 2.2m cows were producing 10 billion litres of milk from 6000 farmers.

"The extent of that productivity is huge," he said, adding that far less cows were now making more milk.

Increased marketing and promotion of dairy products also made a big impact at the farmgate.

Mr Pyle was involved with the Australian Dairy Corporation when it was formed in 1975, and said Australian cheese consumption went from 1kg per person annually to 12kg.

"The promotion of the dairy industry was fantastic," he said.

An unlikely journey

RAISED on a Gippsland dairy farm, Bill Pyle (pictured) initially held plans to become a school teacher as a teenager.

But fast forward to 2014 and the 80-year-old tells a different tale.

"My parents (Bill and Lucy) were dairy farmers, but I always wanted to be a teacher," he said.

His plans changed at 15, when he began to milk cows on their Gainsborough farm, and in 1957 he married his wife Beverley and they started to share-farm.

By 1976, he had become the first president of the industry's lobby group, United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV), and he stayed in the job until 1985.

He recalls many efforts to improve an industry that was struggling due to a collapsed international market - and fragmentation.

But the benefits of a unified sector saw the Victorian dairy industry make some inroads towards profitability, including getting the Government to underwrite a guaranteed price at the farmgate and phase out milk contracts so all producers were beneficiaries of a premium price.

He said getting dairy farmers to act together was crucial at the time.

"With community on your side you can do anything," he said.

"Without them, you can do nothing."

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Sorry did i get it wrong..? Rankins Springs is still open..?!
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No doubt a few frosted Freddies out there who will wish they had taken a closer look at the AGC
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Matthew, I was wondering if you had followed up this story with the farmer after the whole