The chair of a major saleyard proposed for Longwarry has taken aim at the directors of the Pakenham saleyard, claiming they have lost the trust of graziers and agents and misled the livestock industry.
Longwarry Saleyards Pty Ltd chair Greg Price lambasted the Victorian Livestock Exchange for its sudden decision to close its Pakenham facility, warning the company "could not be trusted".
It follows the unexpected announcement by the VLE to close the Exchange Way site on June 30, 2024, giving producers, agents and buyers seven months' notice of the imminent closure.
"The VLE created the Longwarry Saleyards through years of threats [to close the Pakenham saleyards] and never knowing when or what they might do," Mr Price, a director of agency Alex Scott & Staff, said.
"As late as November/December 2021, less than two years ago, the VLE gave the industry and farmers and agents an undertaking that they were going to be there long-term.
"They were in an article in Stock & Land where the VLE's CEO Brian Paynter was quoted as even saying they would be offering 10-year leases with 10-year options to agents which were never ever forthcoming."
The VLE said soaring taxes and council rates led the board of directors to unanimously vote to close the Pakenham facility, which cost the company $10,000 a week or $550,000 a year in land tax to operate.
The VLE-owned Warragul saleyards closed in 2019 and its markets were transferred to Pakenham, and now the closure of Pakenham will force a majority of cattle to its South Gippsland yards at Leongatha.
Despite industry rumours the Longwarry project might have been mothballed, Mr Price said it was "business as usual" as the proponents worked towards raising capital for the project.
The 23-hectare Sand Road site at Longwarry was purchased by the group in August 2019 for $1.7 million.
Longwarry Saleyards Pty Ltd is made up of several agents and farmers, who plan to "replicate" the Pakenham facility to process more than 120,000 head of cattle a year.
"VLE has threatened farmers and agents with closure for many years and that is why Longwarry Saleyards Pty Ltd was formed, why we bought the land and the reason why we sought a planning permit," he said.
"We were not dealing with an organisation that was producer or farmer-friendly or agent-friendly, and any undertaking that they were giving could not be trusted.
"I think they have treated West Gippsland and Yarra Valley producers very, very poorly after years of loyalty."
VLE boss rejects criticism over Pakenham closure
VLE chief executive Brian Paynter hit back at Mr Price's criticism and declined to dispute his comments.
"Greg is not part of the saleyard industry and he's never had a discussion with me regarding saleyards either at Pakenham or Leongatha," he said.
"I'm not going to dispute Greg's views because he's entitled to his views, but he's not part of the industry and I don't know where he is getting his information from.
"Greg knows me and he has my phone number and I haven't had any conversations with Greg regarding this matter formally ever."
Longwarry still a few years from being built
Mr Price said engineering to finalise endorsed plans were underway for the Longwarry project, along with a realignment of the 23-hectare site to split the property in half so the saleyards can be built on a separate title.
"As far as Longwarry goes, there was never going to be room for two large selling facilities 20 minutes apart," he said.
"It's certainly left a hole for one of the richest-producing areas of beef cattle in Victoria, along with dairy cattle."
Mr Price said the closure of Pakenham would leave West Gippsland without a saleyard for "a couple of years" by the time Longwarry Saleyards Pty Ltd was built.
He said the project was estimated to cost $20 million and would take 15 months to build, but admitted the company had not revised the project's costings since the pandemic.
"Material costs went up during COVID and some of those material costs have come back, but certainly not to the extent they were pre-COVID," he said.
"We expect the project will be in excess of $20 million, but I won't give a figure yet until we've gone through our quantity surveyors."
Unlike Pakenham, which is located on industrial-zoned land, Mr Price said Longwarry was zoned farming, which he believes would ultimately reduce the land-tax bill.
The Longwarry Saleyards have not been without controversy though, and have faced ongoing backlash from nearby residents who formed a group called No Saleyard for Longwarry.
Some residents claimed they were abused, threatened and intimidated by people involved in the saleyard project, accusations which Longwarry Saleyards Pty Ltd strongly denied at the time.
In 2020, eight of the nine Baw Baw Shire councillors voted in favour of an amended planning permit.
The planning permit allowed for the development of the saleyard and associated buildings, the construction and display of a floodlit business sign, along with the removal of native vegetation and other work.