Australia, we need to confront our milk crisis
HAPPY People's Day, Queensland.
May the Ekka winds not chill you, the Ekka sun warm you, and fortune smile upon you in Sideshow Alley.
May you also, if you can, find the time to say g'day to a Queensland dairy farmer.
This year, our dairy farmers - who hail from the Atherton Tablelands, the Darling Downs, the Scenic Rim and the Sunshine and Gold Coast hinterlands - are a little hard to locate at the Ekka.
They're up the stairs on Level One of the brand new Arrow Energy Pavilion (on your right just before you duck into Sideshow Alley from beneath the train terminal).
The beef farmers are on the Pavilion's ground floor, and not difficult to spot (just follow your nose) but our dairy farmers - and their gorgeous Illawarra's, Holsteins, Jerseys, Ayrshire's, Brown Swiss and Guernseys - are a little out of sight, out of mind. And not just at the Ekka.
A patchwork quilt of dairy farms once covered Queensland - from the Darling Downs in the West, north to the Tablelands and south to the Tweed.
In the 1970s there were 290 dairy farms in Maleny and its surrounds alone. But a perfect storm of drought, floods, deregulation, tumbling milk prices and soaring increases in feed costs has seen the industry lose a whopping 75 per cent of its farmers in the last 19 years.
In 2000 there were 1589 dairy farms in Queensland, as of June this year, there are 325.
The patchwork quilt is wearing thin, and for those who are still left - those who haven't sold out, walked off, thrown up their arms in debt and desperation or taken their own lives - are, Joe Bradley says "hanging on by a thread".
Joe, 62, is the last dairy farmer in the Dayboro Valley.
With his wife Noelene, 55, he milks 220 head of beautiful Brown Swiss dairy cows on his 220 hectare farm in Dayboro, about 40 kilometres west of Brisbane.
The Valley, encompassing areas like Ocean View, Lacey's Creek and Mount Pleasant, is where Joe, his father, grandfather and great grandfather have been dairying since the mid 1800s.
Now the fourth generation dairy man is the last farmer standing in an area that was once, he says, "proudly dairy".
"In 2000 there were 26 dairy families in our valley," Joe says, "now I'm it."
"My Dad bought the farm next door to me when he was a teenager in 1941, and his Dad, and his Dad's dad had a farm in the area too. So it's in my blood, and in my veins and I love it."
But with 65 per cent of Queensland still drought declared, 60 per cent of milk in supermarkets still being sold at 1992 prices, it's no wonder a dairy farmer leaves the industry, on average, every five to seven days across Australia.
"I get less for my milk now than what I did in 2000," Joe explains.
"Back then I got 58.9 cents a litre, last month I got 57 cents a litre.
"Now I'm not complaining, I'm not whinging and I don't want subsidies and I don't want handouts."
What Joe does want is for people to understand what our dairy farmers are up against.
"I paid $300 a tonne for feed a few years back, now it's between $500 and $600 a tonne, and you can't really get hay at any price."
It's been well documented how the so-called supermarket wars, which saw retail giants like Woolworths and Coles drive their milk prices down to $1 a litre, crushed many dairy farms, particularly smaller holdings.
But there has also been, of late, reports of lifelines to the industry, of glimmers of hope, like the introduction of "Drought Relief Milk" from Woolworths breaking the $1 a litre price threshold, and other companies also increasing their per-litre prices.
Some of these incentives have trickled through to the farm gates, but some have not, and in the meantime farmers like Joe and Noelene, and all the other farmers exhibiting at the Ekka, continue to rise as the sun peeps over Queensland to milk their "girls", and to hope for the best.
"The best way for city and country to understand each other is for us to listen to what each other has to say", Joe says.
"Now we dairy farmers can talk about our cows until the cows come home," he says grinning. "So come up the stairs and say g'day. We'd love to have a yarn with you."
Frances Whiting is a columnist for the Courier-Mail.