By Tom McNish
TIMES have always been tough on farmers but for multi-generational farmers like Andy Thomas, he knows that something has got to give.
The Thomas family has been farming in Krowera for over 100 years.
Andy’s father Jack farmed cattle there from the early 1920s and Andy bought 120 acres at just 21, where he’s been ever since.
With large-scale supermarket demand and rising property prices, the dairy industry is now suited towards large-scale farming, making it harder for small family farms to survive.
“There used to be 15 dairy farmers on Sheepways Road, now there’s two. Every year we get closer to Melbourne,” says Andy.
“The farms that are still here are a lot bigger.
“Our herd, when I first started was the average size with 60 head of cattle, I’ve kept adding numbers myself but now I’ve fallen behind the average as most people have between 260 and 270 cows.
“The way business goes, if we stop growing and stop learning then you’re going backwards.
“We milk twice a day for most of the year. Coming into winter now cows are calving until mid-September.”
Making the most of the off-season, Andy and his wife Diana, took a trip to Ireland to travel and have a look at their farming practices.
“Over there the average herd is smaller, but they receive more cents per litre and a lot more backing from their government.
“We visited where my grandfather was born, where they’re still dairy farming.
“In Ireland they’re encouraged to farm, receiving government grants.”
Feed is always a concern for farmers and though this year is of a fair standard, Andy says the autumn season isn’t producing the way it used to.
“We haven’t had a good autumn for years, the seasons keep coming later.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere near the grass that many farmers would be hoping for.
“Milk prices have been dormant for years and with things like grain prices going up 50 per cent in the last few years and council rates increasing; it’s not an attractive industry for the next generation.
“Travel factors when you’re exporting make it harder. If the dairy industry is to expand, they need to pay a bit more.
“Nearly 50 per cent of dairy products are imported to Australia, with supermarkets not fussed where their dairy come from, a lot of second grade European products enter the Australian market.
“It really puts restraints on the dairy industry growing unless we have the backing of our supermarkets and the government.”
Safety is a growing focus in farming, with Andy relying on the right tool for the job with a variety of machinery.
“The quad bike has a flexible roll bar installed and though they’re not fool-proof, it is a good feature.
“Even on flats, some of the older farmers or inexperienced farmers using spray units that may have 50 litres of fluid can be dangerous.
“I use a small sprayer on the front, a 20-litre tank makes it more user friendly.”
Andy’s hopeful things will turn around. Milk prices are slowly improving, but is it enough to sustain our Aussie farmers?