Being a farmer and living off the land was once the ideal life. But no more.
The idyllic Aussie dream – owning a property that could be passed down through the generations – seems to be dying out and, according to experts, cheap overseas produce imports are to blame.
Peter Darley, apple grower and vice-president of the NSW Farmers Association, reckons local farmers grow enough food to feed every Australian. “There is no need to import fruit and vegetables,” he says.
Senator Joe Ludwig agrees: “Australian farmers produce enough food to feed 40 million people living beyond our borders.”
Yet Australia imports more than $2.7 billion worth of fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat a year.
To a shopper at the checkout, lower prices on fruit and vegetables seem like a good thing. However, the cheap imports have dire consequences for our Aussie farmers.
“As an Australian farmer I can see first-hand how cheap foreign imports are affecting Australian growers,” fruit farmer Cathy Saraceno of Griffith, NSW, told The Newsroom. “More and more growers and their families are facing severe hardship and in some cases bankruptcy.”
Statistics reflect Saraceno’s concerns.
The recent Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s Australian Food Statistics 2011-12 report show that imports of fruit and vegetable increased by $264 million in five years between 2005/6 and 2010/11.
In 2005-06, Australia imported $41 million of fresh vegetables, $184 million of fresh fruit and nuts, and $1,040 million of processed fruit and vegetables. By contrast, in 2011-12, Australia imported $64 million of fresh vegetables, $290 million of fresh fruit and nuts, and $1,742 of processed fruit and vegetables. According to the report, most of the imported fruit and vegetables come from New Zealand, the US and China.
Hugh Gurney, spokesman for AusVeg – the national body that represents Australian farmers, believes the figures highlight the challenges facing the industry.
“This is a shocking and grim statistic…” he told The Newsroom. His colleague William Churchill, AusVeg’s public affairs manager, reckons Australian horticulture “is suffering from massive injury” as the flood of imports wreck regional businesses, employers and families.
Graham Harvey, McCain’s Asia-Pacific integrated regional supply chain director, is also concerned: “When you see imports doubling in a year, I don’t know how much time we’ve got.”
Time is running out for the 1.68 million people (or 15 per cent of the employed in Australia) who make up the food industry. Over the past three years, thousands of food workers’ jobs have been destroyed as many Australian companies face harder times, and some shut their doors for good.
Heinz closed its cannery business in Goulburn Valley in 2012. Rosella shut its doors last year on their iconic tomato sauce, after being in business for nearly 120 years. Heinz sacked 340 workers from its Victorian, Queensland and NSW plants. Around 115 jobs were lost at McCain Foods’ vegetable processing plant in Tasmania.
The SPC Ardmona cannery business last year called on the Australian Government save the local industry by introducing tariffs on cheap imported fruit and tomatoes, but the request was denied. Instead, the government told the company to slash wages and conditions to ensure its profitability.
Mrs Saraceno complains that Australian farmers cannot compete with overseas farmers whose low labour, fuel, fertilizer and electricity costs help them produce export crops that are so much cheaper. This means Australians can buy their produce for less than it costs Australians to grow.
Tony Mahar, general manager of the Farmers Federation, told The Newsroom the only way Australian farmers can compete is by figuring out new ways to cut costs and by focusing on a unique selling point: “What they are good at … and that is food safety.”
Even then, the industry consensus seems to be that Aussie farmers will be a thing of the past unless both Government and consumers rally to support the dearer local product. – Report and photos by Rebecca Hopper