The Australian dairy industry’s first female president in a peak policy and advocacy role, Simone Jolliffe, will officially open this year’s Henty Machinery Field Days.
Mrs Jolliffe farms with her husband Neil and three children at Euberta, near Wagga, and has won respect for her leadership skills shown during the industry’s farm gate milk price crisis.
A rural science graduate, Simone sharpened her industry interest at Holstein Australia sub-branch level, progressing to Dairy NSW, the regional development program under Dairy Australia.
She finished her five-and-a-half years with Dairy NSW in October, before being elected as the first female president of Australian Dairy Farmers in November.
She is the youngest member of the ADF board and now serves as deputy chair following a board restructure to cope with the industry crisis.
Neil and Simone milk 260 Holstein cows year round in a herringbone 18-a-side double-up dairy, delivering to Riverina Fresh, a Fonterra owned processing facility at Wagga.
This year, they became the first dairy to supply milk to the new Coolamon Cheese factory.
Four generations of Simone’s family have attended the Henty field days.
“I went to Henty as a child with my grandfather and he would leave early to get there by the time the gates opened,’’ she said.
“He would impress upon me the NSW Farmers Association shed was a meeting point if I got separated – he loved the cups of tea and cake they served there.
“These days we go armed with a list, such as a water tank or pressure cleaner, but I have done my time with pushing a pram in the mud.’’
Historically, the field days have drawn dairy farmers from southern NSW, northern Victoria, north-east Victoria and south-eastern NSW.
Neil Jolliffe expects a flow-on effect from the dairy crisis into the hay, grain and machinery sectors as farmers tighten their belt.
He said dairy farmers were selling surplus young stock and choosing to rely less on bought-in fodder.
“The average spend on semen will drop or people will buy bulls and not artificially join cows,’’ he said.
Mrs Jolliffe said those businesses not in a position to maintain breeding programs would be detrimentally impacted.
“People will reduce their variable input costs, including grain, fertiliser and labour,’’ she said.
“They will make alternative arrangements with financiers, or reduce herd recording, breed society registrations and memberships.
“The most exposed people are sharefarmers and young farmers – they have committed and grown their businesses, made capital injections and are now most exposed because of their potential equity position.’’
Neil and Simone sharefarmed for eight years before buying their dairy in 2008 – six months before the global financial crisis, which was followed by the 2012-2013 milk price reduction.
“We had two extremely difficult years early in the business and this set us up quite well to manage now,’’ Mrs Jolliffe said.
“Our focus had been on improving our equity position and we are fortunate we hadn’t drawn back on that equity in the last 12 months.
“We are more cautious now than when we bought the farm due to the volatility our industry has experienced since that time.’’
Being a good cash flow business, dairy farmers tended to have a higher debt to equity ratio than other agricultural industries. ABARES estimated the average dairy farm debt in 2012 was $701,500.
When the farm gate milk price clawback news broke in April, Simone was embroiled in dealing with the crisis and the immediate impact.
“The farmers were already suffering as a result of drought, fodder shortages and increased water prices so our focus was around support for them to make sound business decisions,’’ Mrs Jolliffe said.
Mental health was an issue with the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria focusing on regional development programs, including Looking over the Farm Gate.
Dairy Australia, with the support of external funding from State and Federal Governments, increased the release of Taking Stock and Tactics for Tight Times programs through regional development programs such as Murray Dairy.
“Experts were able to be brought in to support farmers in discussion groups or through one-on-one support to help them move forward.
“We encouraged farmers and financiers to contact their customers – it was pleasing when the banks came out with concessions around bank fees and were supportive of the farmers’ cash flow situation.
“It was important for farmers to be open and honest with their creditors in the first instance.
“The clawback means farmers will be impacted for the next three to four years.
“It will make recovery more difficult when we know the next 12 months will be one of the lower milk price years we have ever had to do business in.’’
In the medium to long term, Australian Dairy Farmers are awaiting the results of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigations.
Mrs Jolliffe said the swift and strong consumer support for branded dairy product was a surprise.
“To see the photos of supermarket shelves with branded product sold out was welcomed by the farmer – there are actually consumers who make conscious decisions based around what they think is fair and equitable,’’ she said.
“This scenario was the result of commercial decisions by two of the major players and the resulting milk pricing was most heavily impacted by global supply and demand.
“The consumer support domestically would need to be sustained to have a positive impact through to farm gate.
“That is something industry has been grappling with – how do we sustain this engagement and relationship with consumers so they continue to reflect the value of Australian grown product in their baskets and actions.
“It is a battle agriculture has struggled with over a long period of time because of the disconnect between city and country.’’
Agri-politics has always held a fascination for Simone and when the opportunity arose, she capitalised on it.
For now, she is focusing on farmers, farming systems and long-term industry sustainability.
“In the advocacy and policy space, engagement with farmers and understanding the farming systems, herd improvement and people is where I tend to expend most of my energy,’’ she said.
“I’d been with Australian Dairy Farmers since February, 2014 and when the opportunity arose to stand for the presidency I had strong support from the community to have a go.
“Dairy is quite gender balanced across the board – Dairy NSW was 50-50 male and female.
“Gender tends not to be a focus in dairy, diversity in the broader context is a lot more important than gender.’’