The country ranks fourth in terms of overseas export trade, with milk production creating a surplus destined for export markets, according to Dairy Australia, the industry body.
Its exports are overwhelmingly concentrated in Asia, which accounted for over 80% of the total dairy export value of over A$3bn (US$2.1bn) in 2016-17. The value of Australian dairy to the region has continued to increase, especially in China and Japan, which are notable destinations for Australian knowhow.
Reflecting the importance of these markets and others in Asia, the number of training schemes being provided by Australian institutions is growing, often with government backing, in a bid to exert Australia’s dairy influence on this lucrative region.
According to a 2017 Australian government white paper on foreign policy, “having the ability to influence the behavior or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas is also vital to our foreign policy.”
It said: “Our commitment to education, training and research exchanges will remain central to Australia’s soft power. These exchanges build influence, and strengthen people-to-people links and mutual understanding.”
The policy document also outlined the benefits of conducting exchanges and training programs with emerging markets.
These activities will “facilitate the development of networks, and build long-standing partnerships and strong personal connections, often at the highest levels. More broadly, these programs help to promote Australia’s interests, priorities and policies internationally,” it added.
Perhaps the longest running dairy exchange project, Dairy Australia's scholarship program for China, has been in place for more than 20 years, and this year it gave 16 participants the chance to learn first-hand about the Australian dairy industry.
The scholars, from backgrounds in dairy marketing, manufacturing, R&D and food safety, visited various Australian farms and processing facilities in July, and met with representatives from some of the biggest dairy companies, including Fonterra Australia.
In return for providing insights into how Australia’s dairy system works, the country hopes to foster closer relationships between its own and China’s dairy industry, and hammer home its quality assurance and food safety systems to a nation that has struggled in this regard, according to Dairy Australia.
The national body also co-ordinates scholarship groups annually from Japan and, most recently, Southeast Asia.
Charlie McElhone, Dairy Australia’s group manager for trade and strategy, said the scholarships are designed to build partnerships and boost trade.
“Essentially this is really about relationships,” he said at the launch of its Southeast Asia program.
"They are important relationships and building those ties with those key markets is so vital to the Australian dairy industry.
“We have strong competition from markets like New Zealand, the European Union and the United States, so relationships are very important.”
The Dairy Australia scholarship program is not alone, however, with more initiatives opening up and looking beyond Southeast and East Asia. One of the most recent additions is a train-the-trainer course in South Australia to help build workforce capability in the world’s biggest dairy market.
Facilitated by Austrade, the Australian government's trade, investment and education promotion agency, lecturers from Tafe SA, a vocational training provider, last month received its first batch of four dairy trainers from Parag Milk Foods, which owns Bhagyalakshmi dairy farm in Manchar—India’s biggest private dairy farm.
The course involved a mix of classroom and hands-on training sessions about nutrition, housing and calf rearing, among other dairy topics, in Adelaide and in the state’s South East region.
Following the course, the Indian trainers will be certified to teach dairy farmers at Bhagayalakshmi in Western India.
Parag chairman Devendra Shah said the partnership with the institute would help the company improve the productivity of its cows by teaching farmers best practices in breeding, feeding, animal husbandry and management.
“We are aiming to train all of our associated dairy farmers under this initiative,” Shah said.
“We are also looking at creating a pool of professional farm hands in various aspects of farm management.”
Austrade trade commissioner in India Mark Morley said it hoped to replicate similar partnerships between Australia and India, and other Asian markets such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the future.
“It demonstrates the possibilities of collaboration between the agricultural industries of both countries as India focuses on climate resilient agriculture production capabilities,” Morley said.
Elsewhere, an Australia-India Council grant for A$150,000 (US$106,000) was recently awarded to Green Grass Dairy Training, a project bringing Australian expertise to dairy farmers in India.
“Their project aims to expand knowledge of modern agricultural practices and thereby increase the profitability of their dairy farms," said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a statement.
The program is designed to give farmers in Kerala first-hand experience of Australian methods. Aimed to help in farm management, forage production, soil management and animal health, the training program will be delivered in four regions of Kerala. Participants will also be part of an immersive farm experience tour on working dairy farms in Australia next year.
Back at the Dairy Australia Scholarship program, companies have been seeing the benefits of the long-running soft power initiative.
“It is a terrific opportunity to bring some of the key industry leaders out from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to see the Australian industry at work and see the action on the ground,” said Dale O’Neill, a general manager at Burra Foods in Victoria.
“The Australian industry is proud of what they’ve got to offer around our safety, security and reliability. To be able to show that off to the world is a terrific opportunity through this program.”
For Garry Carpenter, a Tasmanian dairyman, it’s important to show Asian dairy workers Australian production ethics.
“We’ve got to let those people know in the eastern market that what we have got here is a good, clean product, and we’re doing it to the best of our ability. It’s great for them to come across and know where it all comes from.”
By this measure, it appears that this approach is popular and useful for Australia’s industry.