Opinion: Questions of strategy and structure

If we still had subsidies, we'd probably still have 60 million sheep and a mountain of unsold lamb in chillers and freezers.

Instead, we have fewer than 40 million sheep and farmers are looking at options then making decisions based on the market.

Some are persuaded by dairy returns to convert their farms to dairying or dairy support.

Others who don't want to do that are looking at the positive impact dairy prices are having on their own land and selling.

Some still believe there is a future in sheep and beef, which, of course, there is, even though there are questions over exactly what that will be.

The dairy industry is often held up as having the best structure on which to model the meat industry.

But the fertiliser industry might be a better example.

It is almost a duopoly dominated by two farmer-owned co-operatives, Balance and Ravensdown.

There are a few minor players but it is the two major companies which dominate supply.

The dairy industry used to be like that with two strong co-operatives, Kiwi Dairy Group and New Zealand Dairy Co-operative.

Now, there is just one major player, Fonterra, but several small companies have been established, which appears to be leading to the sort of fragmentation blamed for many of the the meat industry's ills.

I am not convinced it would be as attractive for the new players if there were two major competitors rather than one.

Of course, there are basic differences between fertiliser and milk or meat.

Farmers buy the former and, while it is not good practice, can choose not to buy any at all.

Milk and meat are not inputs but products.

Farmers have to sell them to make a living and are often under pressure to sell.

Milk has to be harvested and collected every day and while there may be some leeway as to when sheep and cattle are sold, few farmers have the luxury of holding on to their stock for long in the hope of improvements in price.

A strong duopoly is favoured by Anzco Foods chairman Graeme Harrison.

He told the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry conference that his preferred model was two dominant processing and marketing companies that would compete domestically but co-operate in selected overseas markets.

Even more interesting was the comment at the same conference by Blue Sky Meats director Graeme Cooney, who said there had been too much discussion about industry structure and not enough about strategy.

Meat Industry Taskforce chairman Sir John Anderson said the same thing this week.

The taskforce has hired PriceWaterhouseCoopers to prepare a strategy report which is expected to take 12 weeks.

That may seem a long time for farmers desperately seeking a solution to their own problems, but as the cheese advertisement says, good things take time.

I have started a rural blog called Homepaddock: http://homepaddock.wordpress.com/. - Elspeth Ludema

Disclosure: Elspeth Ludemann does not own shares in any meat company, but her husband, Grant, has shares in both Alliance and Silver Fern Farms and the couple supply milk to Fonterra.

Elspeth Ludemann is a North Otago farmer.


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