A PROTEST meeting brings dairying's plight into focus, writes CHRIS McLENNAN
It still comes as a surprise to many Tongala shopkeepers - or "Tonny" as the locals know it.
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"Yeah, they don't come in much anymore," Gina Johnston of Tongala Hot Bread said.
"Sometimes they will still come in to buy a Lotto ticket, hoping to strike it rich," newsagent Dave Newman said.
"They" is local shorthand for the region's struggling dairy farmers.
And "they" are being missed.
Tonny, in the heart of the Goulburn Valley, has milk coursing through its arthritic veins.
The dairy farmers will be coming to town today although their thin wallets probably won't leave their back pockets.
They're hurting and because they're hurting, so is the town.
They'll be coming today in a desperate hope to draw attention to their plight, and an added fascination with celebrity in the form of businessman Dick Smith.
Plus it's free.
Others around the state are hoping they come too.
Senator Barnaby Joyce will be there. Someone who might be in a bigger Canberra office come September.
Locals are going as a show of support. They recognise politics is a numbers game and the squeaky wheel still gets the oil.
Local councillor and former mayor Neil Pankhurst was putting a brave face on the hurt as he spoke at his own dairy.
He was worried about "talking the industry down" and insisted he could see opportunities to "return to glory".
Yet he was obviously relieved to have just negotiated a new electricity deal through his co-op, Murray-Goulburn at "Rochy".
That deal, through the factory's group power buying scheme, has been calculated to save him 28 per cent on his bill.
Checking his records, he's seen a slight increase on his milk price in recent times, but admits with power, fuel and feed price rises, the area is "doing it tough".
Tongala, population 1262 according to the town sign, is still more fortunate than most other country towns of its size.
It has three big factories - the re-equipping Nestle dairy has just put on more workers and the CopRice stockfeed mill is said to be doing OK too.
There are mixed signals from the large Greenham export abattoir, which has put on an extra shift of workers to turn surplus dairy cows, or choppers, into hamburgers for Burger King in the US.
While locals said the jobs were always welcome, it could signal dairy farmers were quitting their herds.
"A lot of people will go to their meeting just to support the dairy farmers, they've been good to us," retired Nestle plumber Les McMeeken said.
"They can't keep milking cows for nothing for too long."
The demise of financial company Banksia in nearby Kyabram, or "Ky", is still sending aftershocks through the town, and the cheap price of milk at the bigger supermarkets at nearby Shepparton and Echuca still rankles.
Tongala was chosen to host the latest farm protest meeting because of the support offered by local Nigel Hicks, as the new northern representative of Farmer Power, surprisingly still not yet a month old.
Mr Hicks remembered when Tongala impressed him as "looking prosperous" but laments it now "looks sad".
"Banks are squeezing people pretty hard, they just tell governments what they want to hear," he said, referring to a recent meeting between banks and Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh.
Mr Hicks agreed dairy farmers were too cash strapped to visit their local town.
"A lot of people down here are so flat they don't want to go out," he said.
"Some mightn't want to bump into people they owe money to."
Cr Pankhurst thought that unlikely.
"People, especially people in business, know farming can go up and down," he said.
"A lot of the land around here does look dried off and not in production, but that's not the case at all dairy practices have changed."
He and others thought the demographic of the town was changing fast.
Retired Nestle fitter and turner Ken Ferguson believed aged care to be the second biggest industry in the town, behind dairying.
School numbers might be dropping but retirees and commuters are buying up affordable houses.
It is the sporting groups that help bring people out of their gloom and into town, according to footy coach and newsagent Dave Newman.
Today's country coaches are just as prized for their contacts as their on-field ability or oratory.
Coach Newman is pleased to have four new players travelling from Melbourne each weekend to play for the senior team, which he is confident will figure in the finals.
"When dairy's in the dumps, it impacts on everyone and will eventually flow through to the sporting clubs as well.
"When the side is doing well, it gives the whole town a lift."
Just ask Walpeup-Underbool. A premiership flag came just as the headers moved out last year into one of the worst crops in memory.
Mandie Chandler, from craft shop Ewe Give Me The Knits, will be at today's Tongala meeting.
"I was raised on a dairy farm. We have to show them our support. It's our bread and butter, too."
Business through her door and online has been steady despite the tough times.
"Women will give up most things but they won't give up their craft," Mrs Chandler said.
Business was a little slow at the tourist-orientated Golden Cow, the reputed home of the best milkshakes in Australia with 49 flavours, but Deb Purvis was still putting on a bright smile.
"I hope all the farmers drop in after they go to the meeting," she said.
With all the free milk on hand at home, and all those bills to pay, Deb shouldn't count on it.