THE prune industry, one of the few remaining profitable cash crops for local farmers, is teetering on the brink of a major downturn.
The robust Aussie dollar, voracious supermarket chains and a flood of imports has forced the industry's main buyer to slash payments for the upcoming harvest.
Sunbeam last week held a crisis meeting with local growers, confirming this season's crop will attract up to $200 a tonne less than last year's, which was already $500 less than the historic per tonne peak.
Hanwood grower and newly elected Australian Prune Industry Association president Grant Delves said the decision could break the back of many local growers.
"Anecdotally we are hearing a lot will pull out; it's just not profitable, especially if you don't have your own harvesting and drying facilities," Mr Delves said.
"There's very little profit margin left when you take into account the harvesting cost (about $200 a tonne) and the drying cost (about $700 a tonne)."
The average price paid by Angas Park, a subsiduary of Sunbeam which controls 80 per cent of the market, is expected to be as low as $1300 a tonne this season.
Mr Delves said the major supermarket chains were "sucking the life" out of the industry.
"When a new tender process comes up, they say to Angas Park or Verity, this is what we're going to pay," he said.
"Consumers are also buying on price so we are being hurt by generic brands full of South American prunes."
It's a far cry from the heady days of the prune industry, with dozens of local farmers being drawn to the strong returns on the fruit in recent years.
Sunbeam Foods general manager of fruit supply Chris Ellis said all contracted growers had been informed in a letter in late November that prices would drop this harvest.
"The supply is still quite large and it's being exacerbated by the high Australian dollar, which is making imports even cheaper," Mr Ellis said.
"Our message to farmers is they should focus on quality so they have a point of difference."