GIPPSLAND agribusiness exports, now worth $2 billion annually, are expected to grow under the Gippsland food plan that is near completion.
The dairy sector will be a key player, highlighting the importance of the Macalister Irrigation District and South and West Gippsland.
The plan will dovetail with a new state government strategy to make Victoria a food bowl to Asia. Agriculture is a key plank of the big trade delegation that Premier Denis Napthine last week took to South-East Asia.
The Gippsland plan will have strong input from Melbourne University researchers looking at the potential impact of man-made global warming on the region’s agriculture. This project was initiated by Wellington Shire four years ago.
University researcher Dr Robert Faggian said nobody in the world had looked at a region in such detail.
“There is interest from Amsterdam, Egypt and Germany. This will give international exposure to Gippsland.”
The impetus for the food plan arose out of the broader regional plan for Gippsland. A draft regional plan was released earlier this month.
Food plan committee chairman, former Department of Primary Industries deputy secretary and former head of the Ellinbank dairy research institute Dr Ras Lawson said people tended not to see the potential for Gippsland agriculture.
“Gippsland is in a strong position,” he said, given that northern Victoria was under pressure because of water issues and climate change.
“A more naturally wet area like Gippsland has the potential to keep producing if it gets drier,” Dr Lawson said.
“The Australian population will grow and in the Asian market, people are looking for high quality protein foods, food that is reliable and not contaminated. Gippsland has reliable production systems. We can produce the high-quality meat and milk-based products that Asia wants.”
Dr Lawson is chairman of the joint state-federal Regional Development Australia Gippsland Committee, which also includes representatives from GippsDairy, the organic industry, and the East Gippsland Food Cluster.
Dairy dominates Gippsland exports with $762 million.
“The Gippsland dairy industry is bigger than NSW, South Australia and Tasmania put together,” said Dr Lawson. “Local people tend to be a bit ‘ho-hum’ about dairy.”
Melbourne University’s Dr Faggian, a plant biologist and former DPI researcher, is developing a model that aims to calculate the potential impact of man-made global warming on Gippsland’s agriculture.
“We need to be careful. It’s not doom and gloom; we are interested in the positives,” he said.
“The aim is to generate information for long-term decision-making, as agriculture is an important business for rural people.”
The project started in 2009 with a request from Wellington Shire, and is now backed and funded by all six Gippsland municipal councils.
It involves modelling Gippsland’s climate, soil and topography, but also uses expertise – local farmers’ knowledge. Using the model, Dr Faggian overlays different scenarios.
“These are preliminary conclusions that can offer economic development opportunities,” he said.
For example, it may get warmer at Omeo, which could become an apple-growing area, or another area may become too dry for dairy.
Temperature changes could alter the balance between cold and warm climate grapes.
Dr Faggian said Baw Baw and South Gippsland were very versatile but needed to be protected from urban expansion.
“Information is a good starting point for councils,” he said.
“Once good soils are under concrete, they never come back. There is no endless supply of good farm land.”
Dr David McKinna, a consultant who has prepared many reports on Victorian agriculture, said the Gippsland food plan needed to focus on four key areas: the development of high-value, value-added products; encouragement of corporate farming; ensuring the region is ‘investment ready’; and the development of province branding, through farmer clusters if necessary.
Dr McKinna, who also farms at Euroa, emphasised the need to concentrate on high-value products such as H2 high protein milk, yoghurt, infant products or organic products.
“Don’t get locked into a commodity cycle, otherwise you become a victim of dumping by big exporters like the European Union,” he said.
“Break this with a product people want. There is potential to sell special milk products for $3 a litre as a different niche product.”
An example was the growing demand for product with integrity.
“Because of the China milk scandal, the Chinese are paying $6 per litre for fresh milk,” he said.
Linking higher value with ‘province branding’ was a key element of any strategy.
“Branded products like Jindi Cheese show their importance and better value,” he said. “There needs to be a food culture to celebrate, the brand must come from the heart.”
However, province branding was hard to sell in supermarkets, which had massive control of the market.
“It’s a transfer of value from the farmer to the consumer and the supermarkets,” he said.
The alternative was to control your own destiny.
“For example, create a closed shop supply chain, do a deal with Tesco in China, packaged to specification with a long-term contract. But you need to deal with a respected party you can trust.”
Dr McKinna said the danger for Warragul and Drouin was that urban sprawl was driving farmers further east.
“Lifestylers are paying big prices for 40 acres,” he said.
Dr McKinna said Gippsland’s higher land values created the need to be more productive per acre to make the farm pay.
Such an approach was necessary if Gippsland agriculture was to grow.
This in turn was linked to the trend towards making the family farm a corporate operation, with external directors and outside capital.
“Small farms are less efficient and are standing still. You need bigger farms to make a living. Corporate farms invest in technology so that production costs are lower,” he said.
However, some thought that 2000 cows was possibly the upper limit for a dairy farm as it was too hard to manage the health of a bigger herd, such as a mastitis outbreak.
To attract capital, Dr McKinna said the Gippsland food plan needed to have an “investment attraction” component.
“Superannuation funds are not farmers. They want partners,” he said.