Victorian dairy farmers owed millions, overlooked by government and feeling ‘neglected and let down’
Most Australians are aware of the turbulent year Victorian dairy farmers have endured.
Gippsland mother-of-three Fiona Plant says her family is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by National Dairy Products.
But few know the plight of Fiona Plant and a small group of others, who not only experienced retrospective price cuts earlier in the year, but are now facing the prospect they will not be paid a cent for months of milk already supplied.
Ms Plant and her husband Lynden have three children under seven years old and milk about 900 cows in their two Gippsland dairies.
On Monday, the young mother will attend a creditors meeting to gauge the chances of being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to her by milk brokering company National Dairy Products (NDP).
NDP farmers were already struggling to endure a milk price cut similar to Murray Goulburn and Fonterra suppliers, which meant the Plant family lost $240,000 overnight.
Unlike farmers supplying the two big processors, NDP farmers were not deemed eligible for government assistance.
Ms Plant said her pleas to Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce had gone unanswered.
Mr Joyce and Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford have also ignored ABC Rural’s requests for comment about support for former NDP suppliers.
“I’ve been a Nationals supporter all my life and the one time I ask for help, when I really need it, I feel like I’ve been let down,” Ms Plant said.
“There’s a lot of people out there hurting at the moment.
“We might not be 600 or 1,000 suppliers, but at the end of the day, we still have families to feed and employees to pay.”
Administrator confirms debts exceeding $4.5 million
NDP managing director Tony Esposito appointed a voluntary administrator last week, after 25 to 30 farmer suppliers staged a mass exodus.
Mr Esposito admits he owes farmers for milk supplied through autumn, winter and spring, along with transport companies and milk testing facilties.
Deloitte Restructuring Services has confirmed that NDP’s debts exceed $4.5 million, adding that only one secured lender, Scottish Pacific, should expect to see the $1.1 million it is owed.
“On current estimates, we expect that Scottish Pacific will be repaid in full,” Deloitte’s Glen Kanvesky said in a statement.
“Beyond that, there are only a very small number of physical assets — two motor vehicles and some office equipment and furniture.”
The list of other creditors must now await a review of how much NDP is owed by other parties.
Ms Plant’s lawyer told her she should be ready to kiss all of the money owed goodbye.
“As if we haven’t gone through enough already and now it’s coming up to Christmas time and I’ve got a creditors meeting I have to go to … it’s really distressing,” she said.
Dramatic price cut with a promise
Like most Victorian dairy farmers Ms Plant’s nightmare began in May when NDP followed Murray Goulburn in announcing retrospective milk price cuts.
“I think it went from $5.90 to $5.19, which basically meant we were down to 30 cents a litre,” she said.
In the months that followed, the Plants culled 200 cows from their herd.
PHOTO United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president Adam Jenkins is in discussions with the Federal Government.
South west Victorian farmer leading dairy lobby group
But they and others stuck with NDP because Mr Esposito promised, in a document seen by ABC Rural, that price cuts for milk already delivered before May would be reversed if farmers stayed until the end of the year.
“Tony made a commitment to us, as loyal customers, that he would pay back that clawback amount. For us, that was $240,000,” Ms Plant said.
“When he made that huge drop, it really knocked the stuffing out of us.
“We just needed to hold on and hope that he would come through with fulfilling his promise.”
Instead, things got worse.
Even after a huge price cut, Mr Esposito conceded he was forced to “drip-feed” some suppliers and could not pay the full amount for milk supplied.
“For the last three or four months, we were being drip-fed — $10,000 one day, $15,000 a few days later,” Ms Plant said.
“[Mr Esposito] wouldn’t answer phone calls, I called the office and left messages, no one returned my calls.”
Mr Esposito has denied ignoring farmers’ phone calls and requests for an explanation.
Dairy group lobbies for government assistance, investigation
Lobby group United Dairy Farmers of Victoria has engaged ASIC to investigate NDP’s actions.
President Adam Jenkins said he was also in discussions with the Federal Government about extending existing assistance packages to former NDP suppliers.
“We’re trying to get the Federal Government to include them in the [low interest concessional] loan scheme and [grant them] access to the household income, which was available originally to Murray Goulburn and Fonterra suppliers,” he said.
“So we’re just mounting that case, putting the submission together to get into the Federal Government.”