Farmers call for help before it's too late

A COLEAMBALLY farmer has called for urgent government action to stem the demise of local horticulture as vegetable growers sell their farms to avoid bankruptcy.

Prune farmer John Ward said established local fruit and vegetable growers could make considerably more money selling their properties for housing development than farming, which warranted government intervention.

Mr Ward has earmarked 80 hectares of his own prunes to rip out and replace with fodder crop if conditions don't turn around.

"Normally I'd say we just need to push on, but now I'm wondering if I should seriously go on having four hours sleep during harvest, working all day with strain and pressure, all for nothing," Mr Ward said.

"Food production should be seen as an essential service like power and water because without it, our domestic economy and population will suffer.

"I know tariff is a dirty word and I know FTAs are supposed to work but they don't and we cannot survive unless there is some sort of protection of the agricultural sector."

After the government stopped Mr Ward from growing rice eight years ago because his soil was unsuitable and the water usage was too high, he was advised to plant prunes and grapes but neither crop has been profitable.

Mr Ward said it was unrealistic to expect famers to absorb rising labour and energy costs while competing on a global scale with countries like Chile and Argentina.

“Buyers have used imports and the high dollar to push the price of prunes back from about $2400 about eight years ago to just $1750 for the top end produce last year, meanwhile in nine years my growing costs have gone up 50 per cent.

“I can’t wait to see shelves without any veggies on them because of a lack of production, I think that’s when the politicians will begin to understand how difficult conditions are."

Statistics show average incomes for vegetable growers have plummeted while they battle to remain solvent after last year’s “disastrous” season.

Carrot farmers have been the worst hit due to strong competition from the subsidised Tasmanian industry, but local pumpkin and onion growers were also suffering financial hardship.

The average income of Australian vegetable growers was expected to have fallen by 38 per cent in 2012-13 and the average debt has tripled since 2004.

Willbriggie pumpkin farmer Flavio Salvestro believed the statistics were an accurate reflection of local conditions.

"The last couple of years have been absolutely terrible for local vegetable growers," Mr Salvestro said.

"The grower delivers pumpkins for 20 cents per kilo to the supermarkets and they sell it $1.40 per kilo, even when the prices are ridiculously low.

"The big two supermarkets are ripping off the customer but they only ever drop the price at the grower and transport end, which has caused an oversupply primarily responsible for the problems throughout the last few years.

"I know a few blokes that concentrate on veggies who have hit the wall recently and that's only going to continue come the end of this financial year."

Owner of Hanwood vegetable packing company Rinaland, Ross Grillo, offered a rare glimmer of positivity.

"The last financial year was disastrous for most veggie growers, prices were shocking, but at the moment they're reasonable," Mr Grillo said.

"Unfortunately local carrot growers have more or less pulled out their crops and only grow for juice because they can't afford to grow for the markets.”

The national statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science (ABARES) also suggested Australian vegetable growing businesses' average cash income has fallen to $103,000 in 2012-13, 41 per cent lower than the five year average.

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