By Ben Smee /Canberra
The farms across the road had given up on the last weeks of the strawberry harvest, with row after row of plants left to ripen and turn brown. But Adrian and Mandy Schultz were still picking in the morning and packing in the afternoon, without knowing whether the fruits of their labour would reach the market shelves.
On Wednesday morning, they had almost filled three 44-gallon drums with nectarous bright red strawberries that would be thrown out or used for cattle feed. More had been dumped at the back of the property, near Wamuran in Queensland’s Moreton Bay hinterland.
“We’re working on a day-to-day basis,” Mandy Schultz told Guardian Australia. “We send fruit off, then find out whether it’s sold.
“With fruit you can’t just go, ‘Sorry about that. We’re going to wait for it to settle down and we’ll pick next week.’”
Last week, as reports emerged about needles found in punnets of Queensland-grown strawberries, and consumers were urged to throw away store-bought fruit, a supermarket chain cancelled an order from Mandy and Adrian Schultz’s farm. On that occasion they had already put the produce on the truck.
Adrian had another load packed and ready to go. Strawberries are highly perishable and often on shelves with a day of being picked. If consumers don’t buy berries, the supermarkets and other retailers won’t buy them. Farmers bear the cost if the trucks are diverted to landfill.
Growers have faced that futile reality in the past 10 days. More than 100 incidents of food tampering have been reported since, many of those believed to be copycat cases or hoaxes. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced increased jail terms for food tampering offences.
Donnybrook Berries at Wamuran, one of three brands affected by the recall, was forced to dump tonnes of strawberries. In a video circulated on social media, the owner’s daughter, Stephanie Chheang, said “this is no doubt the worst thing to ever happen to my family”.
“This here is worth more than you could ever imagine and within three days we lost it all.”
Suncoast Harvest, on the nearby Sunshine Coast, announced it would lay off 100 staff and “begin the process of spraying out healthy paddocks of luscious, juicy berries”.
Managing director Di West told Guardian Australia: “I am not talking to anyone except my lawyer.”
Down a dead-end dirt road near Wamuran, about 100 people crowd into a packing shed, in a snaking line that has to constantly squeeze and reshape to fit more customers. The farm has no sign and no name. Some locals didn’t even know it was here until they saw a post on a local Facebook page offering cheap strawberries.
Workers at the farm cannot pick fruit quickly enough to fill boxes. Out in the fields are about 50 more people, some families with children, who have been let in to pick their own berries.
Jill Venn, Stuart Fisher and Stuart’s son, Charlie, brought home two large boxes, filled with more strawberries than they could conceivably eat, pulp, juice or freeze.
“We would have supported other farms too, if they decided to do the same thing,” Venn said. “We thought it would be good to come and do it and help them out.”
The owner of the farm told Guardian Australia that opening the doors to the public was the only way he could sell the fruit, because the supermarkets would not take it. He otherwise was not keen to talk. Many growers in the area did not want to be interviewed, concerned that fuelling more discussion about the issue would only prolong reluctance among consumers.
About a week after the first needle was found, supermarkets were still turning down fruit, citing lack of demand. The industry has since changed tack, speaking out and urging people to “cut them up, don’t cut them out”.
Rachel Mackenzie, the chief advocate for horticulture industry lobby group Growcom, said the response from authorities, media and supermarkets had been “disproportionate to the level of risk”.
“Coles and Aldi took all strawberries off the shelf over the weekend,” Mackenzie said. “When we found out there was not actually a (blanket) recall, then that’s pretty damaging for the industry. I can understand them taking a risk management approach.
“I think the growers are really upset. It erodes consumer confidence.
“The thing with this horticulture industry is it’s very much a supply and demand industry and a price-taking industry. You have other years where prices are good and people make good profits. (But) if you have a really good season that can be problematic because you don’t get paid a good price.”
McKenzie said that while Queensland farmers had been affected, if the scare lingered it could harm growers in Victoria, which is the largest producer of strawberries for the $70mn industry. The Victorian harvest typically begins in early to mid-October.
In Queensland, the harvest is almost over. It has been a good year for strawberries, which often means a difficult year for the growers.
Weather conditions have been favourable and that’s produced a glut of berries leaving supermarket prices consistently low, about $1.50 on average for a standard 250g punnet. Farm margins at those prices are remarkably thin.
“What’s happened over the years is ... the costs of producing strawberries have gone up, the transport costs have gone up, the punnet costs have gone up, the wages have gone up,” Mandy Schultz told Guardian Australia. “But the reality is that the cost of a punnet has gone down.”
Adrian Schultz said that, after a difficult year, last week prices looked set to increase. The tail end of the Queensland season would help some growers break even, others to make a little cream from their remaining strawberries.
Every farmer is working with agents and accountants to plan for next year. The Queensland government has announced a $1mn assistance package, but growers say their losses and debts from the needle scare will amount to much more.
Mackenzie said she thought there would be farms forced to close.
“I think there will be casualties,” she said. “There will be some for who this is the last straw.”
The larger farms, which rely more heavily on supermarket business, have been the hardest hit. Mandy and Adrian Schultz’s farm is relatively small in scale. They plan to keep going this year while they have got saleable fruit, and to carry on next year.
“The bottom line is there are farms out there that are going to be going into next year with debt,” Mandy Schultz said. “The bottom line is there will be farms out there that do not have enough money to move forward into next year’s season.” - Guardian News and Media
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