By KATE BANVILLE
RECENT landmark trade deals have seen Australia’s agricultural exports surge across the sector, yet things aren’t as fruitful on the domestic market with some farmers barely hanging on.
Worth more than $2.8 billion per year and employing about 25,000 people, horticulture is Queensland’s second largest primary industry.
And it’s expected to grow as Australia looks to diversify its export markets.
In August the $130 million Fresh and Secure Trade Alliance (FASTA) was unveiled, marking an historic moment for Queensland agriculture with the eight-year program designed to ‘protect and grow Australian horticulture exports’.
Recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) marked the second consecutive year of increasing exports out of Queensland with a $1.79 billion increase on the previous financial year, totalling $12.51 billion.
Yet some growers aren’t feeling so optimistic.
A farmer herself, Angela Nason (pictured) also runs a paddock-to-plate operation which delivers fresh produce from across the Atherton Tablelands to consumers consumers in Cairns, Kuranda, Mareeba and Atherton.
Of the 50 farmers Nason collects from on a weekly basis for Tableands to Tabletop, at least half of them are struggling to stay afloat, she said.
The multi-prong attack on profitability is due to operating costs – including fertiliser, fuel, and freight – at an all-time high, stagnant market prices, consumer behaviour, and worker shortages.
“Nearly all of them have said that things are bad and in terms of selling into the Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne markets – it’s all down,” Nason said.
“The prices haven’t really risen for most things for about a decade.
“People just aren’t buying fruit and vegetables as they try to feed their family more economically during these times.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by FNQ Growers President and Mareeba-based farmer Joe Moro, who told the Caller now was the worst time in farming in five decades.
Moro is also the chair of Growcom, Queensland horticulture’s peak body.
Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers CEO Rachel Chambers said Australian data, which is supported by evidence from AUSVEG and the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, had indicated nearly all production and operating costs had gone up by 37 percent on average.
In a statement to members Chambers said any rises in selling prices of fresh produce had not been sufficient to compensate for rising production and operating costs.
“Whilst growers are not able to pay themselves, they are trapped in debt bondage, are forced into working ridiculous hours putting their own safe working environments at risk,” she said.
Nason said the situation should be a sobering warning to the broader public.
“I don’t understand from the government’s perspective, is it that they would just be more happy having big, massive commercial growers feeding our nation, and who cares about our little farmers?”
“I don’t know but I don’t know what the answer is but what’s what’s happening right now is absolutely devastating.
“One of my farmers said to me yesterday that she doesn’t want to live anymore I’m telling you now they’re hurting.”
James Howe, operations manager of Rock Ridge Farming, one of the largest family-owned farming enterprises in North Queensland, said even with their large-scale operation there was no escaping the pinch.
With more than 450 staff, 80 percent of the value comes from bananas as the main crop, along with coffee, sugarcane, lemons, mandarins, and lychees, as well as rotating crops of sugar cane with either cotton or peanuts.
“We’ve got a very diverse number of varieties planted so at least if one’s bad, hopefully another will be good,” Howe said.
“I don’t know how a lot of people are still in business and we’re starting to wonder ourselves how much longer… whether this is something we can just ride out or if something a lot more significant needs to change within our organisation to keep up.
“It’s just ridiculous, even with our diverse crops.”
Eligible farmers, fishers, foresters, and related small businesses will be able to continue accessing free financial counselling services after the Federal Government last week extended its Rural Financial Counselling Service through to 2026.
The extension to the $38.8 million program will provide ‘certainty’ for support to those in rural communities who also face impending drought, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Murray Watt said in a statement.
“While Australia’s farmers are sensible, capable business owners who understand the ever-changing environment they work in, it’s hard to know what’s around every corner,” Watt said.
“Drought, biosecurity outbreaks, natural disasters, commodity downturns – there’s a lot for rural Australians to deal with. That is where a service like financial counselling can be of help.”