Fonterra's farmers are in a happier place these days.

Milk prices have recovered, the dairy co-op's earnings are up, the outlook for next season is broadly favourable and world supply looks to be better attuned to demand.

Farmers will be thanking their lucky stars that two successive seasons of desperately low milk prices did not extend to a third - as some had predicted - and that a string of freakish food safety scares is now in the past.

It's been a testing time for Fonterra and its farmers, to say the least, but chief executive Theo Spierings says he always felt support from the "80 per cent silent majority" of its 11,500 or so farmers.

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"In difficult times - including the low milk price period - we always had approval to keep to our strategy and keep our focus on our strategic choices, and I think that has paid off," Spierings says.

Now the price is $6 for the current season, which ends in about a month. "It means farmers can have faith at $6.00 to $6.50, and consumers can buy," says Spierings.

It has been a rollercoaster ride for the lanky Dutchman.

In his near six-year tenure, the milk price hit a record of $8.40/kg in 2013-14 - before slumping to $4.40 and $3.90 in the two following years.

Then there were the well-publicised food safety scares.

"We were not in crisis mode, but we had incident management teams running for 18 months," he says.

"It was a day job, then it was a night shift."

At the same time, the co-op invested about $3.5 billion in New Zealand and abroad, based on its strategy of putting more milk to work, faster, and into the higher value end of the market.

Spierings says the extraordinary run of setbacks - traces of the chemical DCD being found in milk, a false botulinum test, and the 1080 poison extortion case - "tested our resilience".

"We faced big challenges, but we came out stronger," he says.

"Right now, in terms of our performance, and in terms of others wanting to enter partnerships with us, we are well placed."

For Fonterra, an organisation with "4.5 million coaches", as he puts it, the chatter around what it does and does not do seems to have died down.

I don't think that New Zealand farmers will let go of the pasture-based system and highly cost efficient system.

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"The heat has gone out of the situation," says ANZ rural economist Con Williams.

"The milk price has gone up and the dividend is holding. The share price is holding well too, but there is still a lot of work to be done."

In the dairy heartland of the Waikato, Federated Farmers provincial president Chris Lewis says farmers seem happier with their co-op these days.

"Fonterra feels more like co-op that it has done over the last couple of years," says Lewis.

"They [Fonterra] have put a lot of effort in over the last couple of years, in making sure that they support their farmers - not just collecting milk and paying them a cheque.

"Five years ago there was a lot of talk about their direction, but it's now a matter of fine-tuning business going forward."

Moving on?

Spierings' predecessor, Andrew Ferrier, was in the job for eight years, and Spierings, who is coming up to six, is not making noises about moving on just yet. "There is a board and there is management and we need to agree together on what the future is, but I am working hard on the next five years and the board is extremely engaged on that," he says.

"Yes, it was a rollercoaster and yes, we got stronger, so I think that we are very well-placed to do this."

Chief executives tend to stay in the job for just a few years, but Spierings - who came from Friesland Campina in the Netherlands - doesn't accept that there is a standard tenure. "I have seen many CEOs who have been in companies like Fonterra for a very long time," he says.

The Australia problem

In Australia, historically a problem market for Fonterra, the co-op has been restructuring over the past three years to slim down its business.

At the same time, its main opposition, Murray Goulburn, has run into trouble, turning a A$31.9 million loss in its first half-year and suffering a 20 per cent fall in milk supply as farmers vote with their feet.

Australia's consumer and competition watchdog, the ACCC, has instituted Federal Court proceedings, alleging Murray Goulburn "engaged in unconscionable conduct" by misleading farmers about milk prices.

Spierings says Fonterra is focusing on its own operations over the Tasman.

"It has taken a lot of pain over the last three years but are are fit, agile and focused on our Australian milk pool strategy," he says.

The Australian strategy has involved cutting out the extraneous operations to focus on cheese, whey and nutritionals (infant formula).

Fonterra's $6.00/kg milk price for the current season is looking
Fonterra's $6.00/kg milk price for the current season is looking "solid", Spierings says. Photo / File

The company's factory at Stanhope, northern Victoria, which was damaged by fire in in 2014, has been rebuilt and will soon be up and running, and the Darnum infant formula joint venture with China's Beingmate is already operating.

"We have made strategic choices in Australia and I think that that has paid off," he says.

Spierings says Murray Goulburn's decision to close three factories does not mean Fonterra is in the market for more acquisitions, mostly because its own facilities are not completely "full".

"We can still increase our milk supply by 20 per cent and fill our assets; after that we might think about acquisitions," he says.

But while Fonterra has streamlined its Australian operation, the country remains a difficult market.

"The biggest problem for everybody in Australia is the inefficiency," says Spierings. "It's a highly fragmented market that has never been rationalised or consolidated.

"Milk supply [in Australia] is coming down. The milk pool is shrinking. There is way too much stainless steel [manufacturing capacity].

"We should fight for market share and to fill our factories."

Chinese growth

Fonterra has hitched its wagon to China in no uncertain terms.

Analysts have questioned its investment in Chinese infant formula company Beingmate, whose performance has gone from bad to worse.

And Fonterra's extensive farming operations in China have yet to turn a profit.

But Spierings says those parts of the business belie what has been a "highly profitable" experience for Fonterra over a short time.

The milk price has gone up and the dividend is holding. The share price is holding well too, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

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The farms are close to making a profit, and Beingmate's problems reflect a formula market that is in a state of flux before regulation kicks in this year. Some players are in for the long haul, but those who are poised to exit are flooding the supply channels before they go.

Fonterra has been selling foodservice products in China for more than 20 years. In 2007 it launched its Anlene brand, and the Anmum and Anchor brands in 2013.

"For me, China is always on my mind, because if something happens there - whether it is disruption or a change in the game from Beingmate's perspective with the regulations, we need to be extremely aware and careful because it has a big impact on us," he says. "Our relationship with China and Beijing is extremely strong.

"The name of the game now is who will get registration first, and we believe that we will be in the first batch."

Fonterra's consumer and foodservice sales in China have gone from nothing to the equivalent of 1.2 billion litres of milk.

Innovation strategy

From the start, the strategy put forward by Spierings has all been about velocity.
Looking ahead, "disruption" and "innovation" will be the buzzwords. Partnerships will also be key.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Fonterra has teamed up with China's online retail giant Alibaba, to explore the use of blockchain technology to back the authenticity of its products.

Growth story

Fonterra has enjoyed phenomenal growth since its inception in 2001. Back then, it took in 12 billion litres of milk, compared with 22 billion today.

It has lost market share - from 95 per cent to 85 per cent - but production increases have more than adequately compensated for the loss.

Fonterra's first-half net profit rose 2 per cent to $418 million, though it reduced its earnings per share forecast for the full year because of what it said was increased market volatility.

Big picture

Worldwide, dairying takes up about 20 per cent of the world's arable land.
Spierings views the apparent rise of nationalism around he world with concern, although that seems to be going into reverse in his home country, and in France, after recent elections.

With 95 per cent of New Zealand's dairy production destined for export, he says the future of free trade will be watched closely. For the next 10 years, productivity and dairy's environmental footprint, as well as trade issues, will be important trends.

Close to home, he questions whether New Zealand production can keep growing by 2 to 3 per cent a year, because of environmental constraints.

He believes New Zealand farmers need to keep grazing their cows on grass, and not go the feedlot way.

"I don't think that New Zealand farmers will let go of the pasture-based system and highly cost efficient system.

"And we should not let go of that, because that's our strength."

On his appointment in 2011, Spierings said Fonterra was the envy of the world.

"That's what I said when I came in.

"But there is still a massive challenge ahead of us."

A payout to bank on

Fonterra's $6.00/kg milk price for the current season is looking "solid", says chief executive Theo Spierings.

The Fonterra board will meet this month to assess the forecast for the season, which ends on May 31, and issue its first forecast for 2017-18.

In an interview, Spierings said there was no reason to believe the current forecast should change, unless something extraordinary happened between now and the season's end.

"That $6.00 - that's a firm number," he said.

Cold, wet weather hit last spring's production, but a good autumn prompted a surge in output. To cap a year of unusual weather, flooding in parts of the country meant an abrupt end to the season for some farmers.

"We had quite a bit more milk over autumn - so the question is whether we are able to shift that to the highest possible value, or is it going to end up in inventory?" Spierings says.

Fonterra has forecast a 40c dividend for the year, on top of the $6 payout. "There is a bit of volume pressure and [GlobalDairyTrade] is getting stronger and stronger, so we have to work hard to maintain that," Spierings says. Milk prices are Fonterra's biggest input cost.

Big swings in the weather and their impact on production have kept dairy markets guessing, says ASB rural economist Nathan Penny.

Markets have reacted to the recent very wet weather, sending whole milk powder prices up by 11.5 per cent over the past three auctions.

"While the severe weather has stymied an otherwise strong end to the New Zealand season, the lateness of the season is likely to limit the impact on production," he said in a recent commentary. "Moreover, key dairying regions have largely escaped the worst of the weather."

ASB's forecast for this season matches Fonterra's, and the bank has predicted $6.75/kg for next season.