It was a sight that would bring tears to the eyes of any dairy farmer or milk lover.
But, surprisingly, it was the fed-up second-generation farmer who pulled the plug on the vat in the milking shed on his farm in northern Victoria.
Mr Kantarias, 50, filmed the 2600 litres of milk going down the drain for the next 6½ minutes.
He then posted the video on Facebook with a strong and clear message to the nation’s largest dairy processor who, he said, was ripping him and his fellow farmers off: “To all the Murray Goulburn directors kiss my a—”.
“It was a bad day that day,” his wife, Sharyn Kantarias, said.
Mr Kantarias had hit rock-bottom. He, like many other farmers in the area, were being forced to sell their milk to Murray Goulburn for less than it cost to produce.
Pressure was mounting as the phone rang continuously with their bank and other creditors demanding they pay overdue bills and accounts. They were at risk of losing everything.
“This is our job, home and superannuation, but we were in real danger of losing it all,” Mr Kantarias said.
His wife added: “It got really scary. Our bank was saying ‘you’ve got to sell, you’ve got to sell’.
“Not being able to put food on the table was the scariest part.
“I could eat baked beans every night, but when you’ve got children, you can’t do that.”
The Kantariases had paid $675,000 for the 140-acre Katunga farm, north of Shepparton, in November last year and just after they hit the ground running they were stung by the drastic drop in the Murray Goulburn farmgate milk price in April.
Within two days, their income was cut in half. Instead of offering $6 per kilogram of milk solids, Murray Goulburn would only pay $2.75.
The co-operative then announced it had last year paid its suppliers $183 million too much and, in a controversial clawback, demanded the Kantarias family pay them $50,000.“It was such a big shock as everything came to an almighty screeching halt,” Mrs Kantarias said.
“It was costing us 38 cents a litre to produce it and we were being paid 30 cents for it.
“There were a couple of months when our milk cheque was zero.”
The future looked bleak. The Kantariases, like many other dairy farmers, were staring down the barrel of a debt of up to $1 million.
One night, Mrs Kantarias recalls waking to her husband in tears sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands.
“My husband doesn’t cry, but this night he basically said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m better off dead’. That actually floored me. I just kept saying to him we were going to get through this.”
They were not alone.
Some farmers didn’t make it through the tough year, taking their own lives. Many others were forced to sell their farms or cattle and machinery to survive. Usually loyal Murray Goulburn suppliers shifted to rival processors.
The crisis sparked an ACCC inquiry into the dairy industry and the conduct of Murray Goulburn. Dairy company Fonterra Australia is also in strife for following Murray Goulburn’s milk price cut.
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, Mrs Kantarias says.
They have signed with Australian Consolidated Milk and are converting to produce organic milk, which will fetch a guaranteed premium price of $8/kg of milk solids.
“I class us as one of the lucky ones,” Mrs Kantarias says. “For the ones that are staying with Fonterra and MG, it is pretty bleak at the moment.
“It is going to take us at least 18 months to get back on track. But fingers crossed we will get there and there will still be a magnificent dairy industry in Australia.”
Farmers struggle to put food on the table
THEY are the generous, hardworking country folk who bring food to our plates.
But now Victorian farmers are struggling to feed their own families.
The state’s leading food relief organisation has for the first time seen farmers reaching out for food packages following a year of record floods and the lowest milk prices on offer.
“It truly is a sad irony that those who feed our families are now the ones needing support during the festive season,” Foodbank Victoria chief executive Dave McNamara told the Sunday Herald Sun. “Since the millennium drought, our farmers have experienced flood, high costs, drought and now the dairy crisis. It is a constant battle for many farming families and communities to just keep going.”
While Foodbank Victoria distributes more than 17 million free meals annually across the state to those in need, Mr McNamara said deliveries to rural communities had this year increased by more than 11 per cent.
Northern Victoria dairy farmers George and Sharyn Kantarias praised the support Foodbank has given to farmers this year.
A staggering 1000 10kg hampers — each containing enough to feed a family of four for a week — were packed by Foodbank volunteers in Melbourne on Thursday to distribute to rural Victorian families.