In Australia, wheat farmers fight potential takeover by Archer Daniels Midland


Freshly cut wheat stands under approaching storm clouds near Roma, 267 miles west of Brisbane in this Oct. 29, 2011, photograph. Australian wheat growers look set to miss out on the full benefits of a spike in prices on the back of the worst drought to hit the U.S. Midwest in more than 50 years after reducing plantings and selling stocks earlier in the year. (Tim Wimborne/REUTERS)
October 31, 2013

Australia’s wheat farmers are used to adversity: the loneliness of living in a sparsely populated continent, droughts so severe they turn soil infertile for years, swarms of grasshoppers that can strip crops in minutes.

Now they are engaged in a new and different fight — against an American food giant.

Archer Daniels Midland — its eye on a hungry Asia and Middle East — wants to make the largest acquisition in its history: a $3.3 billion takeover of GrainCorp, the last big Australian agribusiness not owned by foreigners.

If successful, Archer Daniels Midland will extend its influence over the global food chain to the world’s fourth-biggest wheat crop.

The plan makes strategic sense, financial analysts say. The Decatur, Ill.-based company would enhance its ability to shift food staples around the world to respond to fluctuations in demand. Australia’s high-quality wheat, which is popular across Asia for making noodles, is harvested from October to December, while crops in the Northern Hemisphere are growing.

The acquisition would also provide a geographic hedge against drought, giving Archer Daniels Midland greater confidence in fulfilling wheat-supply contracts, which can run as long as 10 years.

GrainCorp controls about 60 percent of the transport and storage of Australian grains — mainly wheat, but also barley and canola. It is the world’s fourth-largest producer of commercial malt, which is used in beer and whiskey.

Australia’s embrace of foreign investment has helped make it one of the most prosperous societies in the world. But the attempted purchase of GrainCorp is causing great angst in rural areas, where the company is viewed as a symbol of national pride. Many of Australia’s farmers hate the prospect of being reliant on a foreign-owned multinational and have begun a fierce campaign to persuade the government to veto the deal.

Some have even invoked a 2009 movie starring Matt Damon, “The Informant!,” which recounts an FBI price-fixing investigation into Archer Daniels Midland in the 1990s that led to a large fine and prison terms for some executives.

“Their history would tell you they are bullies,” said Dan Cooper, a grain farmer from the tiny town of Caragabal, 250 miles west of Sydney. “It will be a monopoly in foreign hands.”

Cooper is helping coordinate national opposition, lobbying government officials and briefing media outlets. The campaign is run by several long-established farmers organizations.

The negative publicity seems to be influencing public opinion. A survey in July in the Land newspaper found that only 5 percent of grain farmers trust the American company’s record.

Questions and accusations

Australia’s antitrust commission doesn’t buy the monopoly argument. It has cleared the deal on the reasoning that GrainCorp wouldn’t be any more powerful under U.S. control than it already is.

That decision hasn’t swayed some lawmakers representing rural interests. When Archer Daniels Midland executives appeared before a parliamentary hearing in June, the chairman of the committee recited the company’s regulatory missteps over the years, including allegations of fraud, tax avoidance and corporate espionage.

The politician, Bill Heffernan from the governing Liberal Party, wants Archer Daniels Midland chief executive Patricia Woertz to appear before the committee to take further questions. “If she can’t make it in person, we can do it by Skype,” says Heffernan, a farmer who sells wheat to GrainCorp.

Ian Pinner, grains president for Archer Daniels Midland, wouldn’t say whether Woertz will accept the invitation. The company’s response to the accusations has been diplomatic.

“Australia has got to be one of the hardest places to farm in the world,” Pinner said in an interview. “The growers show a lot of tenacity, and we want to support them.”

Split coalition

The takeover, which GrainCorp’s board supports, requires the approval of the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a coalition of the free-market Liberals and the countryside-based Nationals party.

The issue has split the coalition, which has been in power less than two months. Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, a member of the National Party, argued shortly before winning office that the cost of the acquisition was so high that Archer Daniels Midland would be forced to increase prices charged to farmers to store their grain.

Truss said he was concerned that decisions about expanding Australia’s grain industry “would be made in boardrooms in the U.S. and other parts of the world.”

Archer Daniels Midland executives say they want as much Australian wheat as possible and don’t have an incentive to jack up prices.

Many Liberals have emphasized the importance of the $600 billion in U.S. investment in Australia, which is more than from any other country.

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey, who will approve or reject the deal, is a Liberal member of Parliament. He recently acknowledged that Australians feel a “certain preciousness about agriculture investment from overseas.’’

“However, Australia has one of the most generous foreign investment regimes in the world, particularly for agriculture,” he told investors and bankers at a lunch in New York on Oct. 15 organized by the American Australian Association.

Hockey, who owns part of a cattle station in Australia’s northern tropics, has promised a decision by Dec. 17.

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