After more than 100 years on the land, the Gee family is walking off its Hunter Valley dairy farm at Jerrys Plains, blaming low milk prices and rising costs.
Three generations are employed in the family business, including grandparents Colin and Rita, their sons Paul and Shane, and their four granddaughters.
“I thought I would have had kids, they would grow up and maybe take over the farm, but yeah, it’s not going that way,” 23-year-old Samantha Gee said.
“It’s really sad. It’s absolutely devastating to be honest.”
Farming costs rising
When the Australian dairy market was deregulated in 2000, the Gees declined a compensation package and continued doing what they loved.
They did as they were advised by the dairy industry: they bought more land, more stock and invested in a large mechanised rotary milking system.
Since then costs on the farm have continued to rise, but the price of milk has barely changed in 10 years.
“You try to build your business to live just comfortably, nothing out of the ordinary, and the price of milk comes back and all the inputs go up and I just can’t see a future in it,” Paul Gee said.
Mental health under strain
Depression and mental health issues are taking their toll on the family.
It was last July when Paul Gee said he entered a “very dark time”, something he thought “would never happen” to him.
He was herding his cows for milking when the stress and worry became too much. The weight on his shoulders seized his entire body.
“The cows came to me, walked past me and went through a fence and I just stood there, I couldn’t move,” he said.
“I rang my daughters and they raced down and helped me. I said I’m going to be late to take my son to football again. They said don’t worry, we’ll sort this Dad.
“After that I said to my brother we can’t keep doing this, we’re just getting nowhere, this is garbage, so I went and saw Mum and Dad and told them we made a decision.”
The Gee family is not alone
During better days in the Hunter Valley, there were more than 1,000 dairy farmers across the region supplying a number of local milk processors.
Eight years ago there were only 150 farmers left. Hunter Dairy Development Group chairman Scott Wheatley said that had shrunk to around 50, and more were following.
“Every farmer in the Hunter at the moment would be in the same situation, they’re probably all looking around assessing whether they can maintain viability as a dairy farmer,” he said.
“We’re all scratching every month just to pay the bills.”
The Hunter region is in the grip of severe drought, forcing farmers to spend big money on electricity for irrigation and buying in stock feed.
But few have any financial buffer to help them through the tough times.
“There’s nothing there, we’re living on overdrafts, most farmers would be living with overdrafts and you get to a tipping point,” Mr Wheatley said.
“As soon as you get pressures from the climate, energy, grain prices going up, those sort of things, they make a hell of a lot of difference to the bottom line and you can only lose money for so long.
“If it continues we’ll probably become unviable, unless we get a substantial pay rise in our price for milk.”
Branded milk not helping
In mid-2016, social media campaigns against cheap supermarket milk saw a spike in the sale of branded products, but the Gees and Mr Wheatley said the benefits were never passed on and things have only worsened.
Mr Wheatley said his farm gate price for milk had fallen from 55 cents a litre, to 50 cents a litre, despite the fact he sells to the Dairy Farmers brand, which is owned by Japanese company Lion Dairy and Drinks.
“They’ll just pay the minimum amount they need … just to keep people hanging in there with a glimmer of hope, that’s all they’re doing,” he said.
Lion Dairy said the spike in sales of branded milk products only lasted a couple of months and did not continue.
“Some consumers have continued to purchase branded milk, however private label milk makes up about 56.5 per cent of the market,” it said in a statement.
“We are aware that some farmers are leaving the industry, however we have been told this is for a variety of reasons.”
Despite not reaping the direct benefits, the Gee family still said buying branded milk was best — it puts more money in the supply chain and attributes an appropriate value to the product they produce.
In the long term, Samantha Gee said she hoped the efforts of those willing to spend more on milk would make a difference. But it won’t come soon enough to save her family’s dairy dynasty.
“The dollar a litre milk? That’s ridiculous,” Ms Gee said.
“They don’t understand what goes into it, the amount of hours, time, hard work, dedication that we do, for what? Just no result? No outcome? It’s just not going anywhere.”