Grape industry on shaky ground as grower rips out generation of work

A GRIFFITH grape grower forced to tear out his vineyard has told his devastating story after the local industry was declared "unsustainable" last week.

Consistently low prices combined with this year's unusually low yields have forced the Wine Grapes Marketing Board (WGMB) to take the unprecedented step of questioning the viability of the Griffith industry.

WGMB CEO Brian Simpson warned growers would be forced out of the industry "in droves" and if there was a viable market for their properties, this would have already happened.

Grower Anthony Sebo made the call to pull out his vines after his buyer told him they would not take his grapes, three weeks before harvest.

After cutting costs back to the bare minimum, Mr Sebo could no longer watch the once-healthy vines his father had planted decades before grow sick and weak because he could not afford to care for them properly.

"I know people who are going into their savings to keep the farm afloat - they're working five or six days a week just so they have the money to keep the farm going," Mr Sebo said.

"If it was a business in town you'd just walk away but, for a lot of people, the value of the land has gone down and they've borrowed more than the land is worth."

While it was hard for him to give up on something he and his family had worked so hard for, Mr Sebo said in the end, his health and his family were most important.

"I had to look at what life is actually worth I did the sums and I worked out I'm better off not doing it, I haven't got the stress," he said.

"The ones that are staying, I can guarantee they have some other off-farm income because there's no way they could survive just off what they're making on the farm."

With wineries dictating the prices based on their own financial situations, Mr Sebo said greater communication was needed.

"We've been put in the mindset that we're the last in line but I believe we're the first in line because it's very hard to make wine without grapes," he said.

"There's nowhere growers can save, they just can't cut back anymore.

"A lot of people are getting very sick because of it and I can't see how it's going to improve."

Mr Sebo said many of the struggling growers had been behind some of Griffith's biggest wineries right from the start and built them to what they were today.

"A lot of kids don't go on excursions anymore because their families can't afford it," he said.

"We're depriving our families for someone else's financial gain."

While wineries have blamed the poor export market for this year's low prices, Mr Simpson said grape prices in other regions had seen a vast increase since last year.

"This will now be the fifth year in a row that many growers on average terms are on the receiving end of returns per hectare that fall well below the costs of production," Mr Simpson said.

"I speak to grower contacts in our neighbouring regions that purportedly produce wine grapes of similar quality and our pricing and grading system is often regarded as a joke and smokescreen.

"Wineries need to get real with the prices they are offering because continuing to lean on the grower base is leading to undesirable consequences for the region's sustainability and wineries' own markets due to product quality risks."

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