NSW no longer the land of milk and honey
FOR most of us, the idea of a dairy farm is the sort of thing we'd imagine springing from the pages of a kids' book - a picturesque world where fat, black and white jersey cows graze in lush, green pastures, wooden buckets brimming with rich, fresh milk - no doubt somewhere within a yodel call of the Toblerone factory in Switzerland or where flat-cap wearing farmers in Wellington boots trudge around with a cow named 'Bessie' in an episode of Midsomer Murders.
But the reality of dairy farming in New South Wales' is an altogether different picture.
Besieged by drought in a grim, colourless, cracked-earth expanse, this state's oppressive big-sky country is a cruel environment for farmers struggling to make ends meet - parts of rural NSW we've driven through where the stainless steel troughs and gates of once thriving dairy farms now lie derelict, exude all the despair and desperation of a Great Depression dust-bowl.
Making matters worse, it's the smoke from the more than one hundred bushfires around the state that exacerbates the dire situation for those trying to survive the drought in NSW.
There were lonely drives on smoke affected backroads through places like Carabagal on the way to Goolagong - a stretch where you'd be lucky to see a passing car within hours - this is where you really feel the weight of how dire the situation is for those living in remote NSW.
Even within the confines of the moving car, the acrid smell of bushfires somehow ekes its way into your nostrils, the smoke's grit causing your eyes to stream.
Certainly, for the three of us - back on the road after our last assignment driving the length of the Darling River - we're on a long, learning experience - a circuitous drive from the coast to far west NSW to try and gain some understanding of the plight of dairy farmers in NSW.
Personally, the Milk Run was very much an eye opener - spending a part of my growing years living in the Bega region, my misinformed knowledge of the dairy industry led me to believe dairy farms were the domain of the state's coast - (as a kid I remember learning Norco Milk stood for North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Cooperative Company) - but I was astonished to learn there were so many dairy farms in the state's west.
But for how much longer?
While not all dairy farmers we spoke with were confident of their business' survival, all were in agreement of just how grim the situation is.
Most of us who wander the aisles of an airconditioned supermarket, have no idea of how a staggeringly complicated and expensive process it is to bring a simple litre of milk to the refrigerator.
The phenomenal outlay for farmers to build and maintain a modern, competitive, stainless steel 'herringbone' dairy - acquisition of stock, farm machinery, biosecurity measures, the cost of feed that's doubled in price in the last 12 months, storage, transportation, the unrelenting requirement of constantly milking the herd - it's a cycle beleaguered farmers can only find their way out of if they either go bust or throw in the towel.
Yet three words haunt us whenever we speak to farmers - deregulation, Coles and Woolworths.
Farmers' anger is palpable - they were blindsided by supermarket colossus Coles' announcement eight years ago to halve the cost of milk from $2 per litre to $1 overnight.
This in turn kicked off a brutal price war between Coles and its nemesis Woolworths - a war ending only this year with Coles agreeing to raise the sale price by 10c thereby matching Woolworths.
Nevertheless, farmers we spoke with say the initial decision to halve the cost of milk has broken the industry. There's no question it's been disastrous for the smaller operators - NSW has seen 51 farmers go to the wall this year.
As one farmer put it, "people won't bat an eye at paying $3.50 for bottled water - but ask them to pay $2 for a litre of milk …"