What strawberry growers need to survive

 

STRAWBERRY growers are scrambling to source runner plants from interstate in a desperate bid to safeguard this year's season, with Stanthorpe suppliers struggling to fill orders because of crippling drought.

Farmers on the Sunshine Coast have been forced to source most of their runner plants from Victoria, as their main supply in Stanthorpe faces dire conditions with growers forced to put limits on their orders.

Pinata Farms for the first time in years has not planted a single strawberry at its Stanthorpe farm for the summer season - a loss of about 3.5 million punnets to the market.

Those in the industry, which is worth about $130 million to the Queensland economy, are also concerned there will be fewer strawberries on the market as farms struggle to buy plants, even if there is water for them.

"Typically, we produce about 3.5 million punnets over summer at Stanthorpe and this year we've got zero - we didn't plant any and I'm glad we didn't because it still hasn't rained," Pinata Farms owner Gavin Scurr (left) said.

"We're contracted to Woolworths with our strawberries year round and they're fully understanding of the situation - they've visited the farm and saw how it is and are very sympathetic ... but at the end of the day, we don't have any strawberries until we start at Wamuran, and they'll start harvesting late April. It's certainly very tough at Stanthorpe, for everyone."

Pinata Farms owner Gavin Scurr in his strawberry field at Wamuran. Picture: Lachie Millard
Pinata Farms owner Gavin Scurr in his strawberry field at Wamuran. Picture: Lachie Millard

Runners are horizontal stems that run above the ground, developing their own roots and producing clone plants, which growers use to kickstart their crop.

Mr Scurr said although at their other strawberry farm in Wamuran there was water, the lack of plants was causing ­concern.

"No one is really sure on how many plants we will get to plant, and even though we have water here, we may not be able to grow a full crop due to the lack of plants," he said.

"We don't usually plant them 'til March so we have time, but it's certainly a concern and the forecast is not looking positive - it's not a good time at the moment.

"There's certainly a concern there won't be as many strawberries as there normally would be … from our perspective, even though we're spread out in two locations, we've got no strawberries over summer, and next winter it will maybe be less than we normally have due to lack of plants.

"Even the people in Stanthorpe that have been there 70 or 80 years have never seen anything this bad - it's the worst on record."

Berries Australia executive Rachel Mackenzie said 12 of the past 15 months had been in the top 10 per cent hottest on record, with some of these months being the very hottest on record.

"Stanthorpe is our main growing region this time of year … unfortunately growers in this region have limited access to water and have been buying water to keep their plants alive, which significantly increases the cost of production," she said.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk visiting Pinata Farms Strawberry Fields at Wamuran with owner Gavin Scurr. Picture: Lachie Millard
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk visiting Pinata Farms Strawberry Fields at Wamuran with owner Gavin Scurr. Picture: Lachie Millard

"An additional issue is that this region is also the only place in Queensland that is climatically suitable to grow runners, which are needed for next year's Sunshine Coast crop.

"There was reduced availability of high-quality runners this year, and without rain the issue will be much more significant next year."

Berries Australia says there are eight strawberry growers on the Granite Belt but three have not planted any strawberries.

Luscious Fruits owner Grace Lim in Bundaberg said she was only able to secure 20,000 of the 60,000 plants she needed for the hectare she planned to grow, through Sweets Strawberry Runners in Stanthorpe - a move that will increase freight costs.

"Sweets have agreed to supply me, but the numbers are limited and there were a lot of phone calls, and it was very stressful because I need to secure my supply of runners," she said.

"If anything happens to (Victoria), then we're stuffed."

Cooloola Berries owners Kim and Jason Lewis, near Gympie, said many of the larger strawberry farms were finding it difficult to fill their orders, and urged farmers to consider the benefits of keeping their farm smaller so orders - like theirs, which are only 80,000 strawberries as opposed to millions - could be filled from Stanthorpe.

"What's happening in Stanthorpe is really devastating," Mr Lewis said. "We looked ahead and decided this year to get less from Sweets in Stanthorpe - so only 25 per cent of our 60,000 plants - with the rest ordered from Victoria."

Luigi Coco, owner of Coco's farm in Elimbah, said he had placed orders for 50 acres worth of crops, but there was "no guarantee".

"We have 170 people employed here and if we can't plant for the whole farm, you can't employ that amount of people," he said.

"We're very careful with water … but we could be in for a bumpy ride. The government needs to look at how to move water around Australia."

The lack of runners and drought is also having rippling effects on the wine industry, with prices expected to rise. "Prices will unfortunately go up due to availability," Queensland Wine Industry Association president Mike Hayes said. "We don't know what's going to happen … it's very serious. I've never seen anything like it in 40 years.

" It's absolutely devastating … but we want to let everyone know Stanthorpe is open - come to this beautiful town."


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