BIG READ: Inside CQ dairy's fight to thrive
IN 2000, when Australia's dairy industry was deregulated, Robbie Radel lost 20c per litre on his milk "overnight”.
The Coalstoun Lakes dairy farmer had been getting 52-54 cents a litre but it dropped to 30 cents.
"It basically halved our annual income with the stroke of a pen,” Mr Radel said.
It's been two decades since that day, and yet Mr Radel, also a councillor in the North Burnett, is still flying dairy's flag, the last one left in the Coalstoun Lakes district, which was founded by his ancestors in 1907 and was once dotted with dairy farms.
First, he had to survive. Now, he's looking to thrive.
Two years ago, Mr Radel broke away from supplying major processors to establish his own milk label, Central Queensland Dairy Fresh, which is now supplied by four other farms as well as his own, Happy Valley.
It has been a rough ride: his bank foreclosed on his larger farm in Biggenden when they became spooked at the prospects of him striking out as independent, telling him his income was no longer secure as it was not tethered to a major processor.
But the family regrouped at Happy Valley and last week received a boost when they hosted about 50 people on a tour organised by Nourish Cafe Bundaberg, a proud supplier of CQ Dairy Fresh.
The message was clear: help revive the flagging industry by supporting independent labels.
The tour was organised by Judy Plath, Nourish's owner.
Ms Plath is passionate about Australia's dairy industry because she's "seen it all fall apart first-hand”.
Her uncle was a dairy farmer and she has cherished childhood memories of spending school holidays frolicking on the farm.
But her cousin, who took over the farm, was squeezed out; a "very sad day” for the family.
She lays the blame squarely at the feet of the big supermarkets.
"The dairy industry is difficult as it is right now thanks to Coles and Woolworths,” Ms Plath said.
"I never shop at Coles and Woollies, ever.
"I do not support their ethics, it's not only dairy farmers they treat like dirt, they treat all farmers like dirt, they bully them, they push them around, they tell them how it will be.
"What they did overnight (with $1 milk) was force the dairy industry to completely change how they operate.
"They forced these farmers into a situation where they did not have the money to look after their cows properly.”
Ms Plath said it was not only an ethical decision for her to stock CQ Dairy Fresh, but a business decision: "It's a far superior milk, you see it in the coffee what a difference it makes”.
Mr Radel told the tour the dairy industry is in a parlous state after receiving an "absolute flogging” during the infamous 'milk wars'.
CQ Dairy Fresh is their last stand.
"We got sick of being price takers rather than price makers and we decided if we were going to die in the dairy industry, we were going to do it on our own terms,” Mr Radel said.
"We said enough is enough. If we want there to be fresh milk for consumers in the future, we have to take it into our own hands.
"We would like to think by us taking that few million litres of milk out of the pool, we have helped drive the price up with the major processors.
"They're now starting to realise they're going to have to pay a good amount for milk or they simply won't have it.”
Mr Radel said his bank's decision to foreclose still rankled with him.
"When we went out to do this venture, little did we know that was going to bring the banks into play,” Mr Radel said.
"The banks got nervous and said so many people who go out and do their own label fail and the banks told us they wanted us to sell, even though we were ahead on mortgage repayments and hadn't missed a repayment.
"Basically, they had no grounds to do it but as you know, banks do what banks do and forced us into selling up.”
Although the Radels have managed to eke out a tenuous existence from dairy, the industry continues to crumble under the weight of drought and low prices for their product.
"There are still now dairy farms going out. Every day of the week there are dairy farms selling,” Mr Radel said.
"There's been two complete herd dispersals just this week alone that I know of.
"The average age of a dairy farmer in Queensland is 65.
"You can imagine the future is not necessarily real bright when you're relying on people who should be thinking about their retirement and buying themselves a caravan.”
It's back-breaking labour, too: Mr Radel's alarm chimes at 4am, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for him to begin milking his herd of 66 Brown Swiss and Illawarra cattle by 4.15am.
"You'd have to go a long way to find a job that needs the level of commitment of a dairy farmer,” Mr Radel said.
"You still have to milk the cows twice a day no matter how you feel.
"Producing 40 - 45L of milk per day in good conditions, they get mastitis very quickly with that level of milk.”
But it's not just labour, Mr Radel said: it's also the low esteem dairy farmers are held in by people far removed from the land and who don't understand his operation.
He said he has been called a "rapist” before by activists who believe the artificial insemination of cows is inhumane.
"Is artificial insemination any more cruel than having a 1000kg bull jump on them?” he asked.
"I've seen a lot of cows limping after a big bull's finished with them.
"Our cows are our family. I know them all by name. I have a lot more time for my cows than I do some people.
"We don't milk cows to get rich, we milk cows because we love milking cows.”
Despite the challenges, he hopes to one day see one of his six children continue the proud Radel dairy farming tradition into a sixth generation, whether at Happy Valley or their own farm.
Whether the industry survives that long into the future is up in the air.
But while the cows are still being milked, businesses make the decision to support independent dairy and consumers, such as those on the Nourish Cafe Bundaberg tour, take an interest in where their dairy comes from, there is still hope.
There may even be the smallest shoots of revival.
The person who bought the Radels' Biggenden farm from them has plans to continue dairying on the property.
And once they get off the ground, they might just get a knock on the door from the only other dairy farmer left in the North Burnett, asking how they would feel about supplying to a little independent label called CQ Dairy Fresh.