Goulburn Valley fruit growers have called on the government to step in to help the region’s flagging industry.
At a packed rally in Shepparton last week, grower Peter Hall implored the federal government to provide temporary tariff protection for local orchardists who have found it difficult to compete with cheap imports.
“I get tired of this rhetoric that we’re the food bowl of Asia…we can’t even be the food bowl of Shepparton. Something’s wrong,” he said.
The rally came after SPC Ardmona announced last month that it would cut local quotas by up to 50 per cent. As a result, 60 of the cannery’s 114 suppliers have had their contracts abandoned. Hall said the industry was facing a “crisis”, with people’s jobs and livelihoods under threat. “I am … contemplating removing a 140-acre orchard. That’s about the equivalent of six full-time jobs,” he said to a vocal audience.
A SPC Ardmona Media Release dated 10 April said that the company has experienced a 90 per cent reduction in its export market over the past five years, while its share of the canned fruit market has decline to 33 per cent.
The release also revealed that the company has sought federal government assistance in the form of a WTO safeguards submission. According to Australian Manufacturing Workers Union State Secretary Steve Dargavel, tariff relief alone will not solve the problem. “We need a longer term fix,” he said, citing the high value of the Australia dollar as a root cause of the industry’s woes. “We have a small currency that is the plaything of international investors and we are copping the consequences on that in this community,” he said.
It is a view shared by Bob Katter, MP for the Federal seat of Kennedy, who also flagged insufficient labelling laws as harming local producers. “When we get back we’re going to force a vote in the house on labelling,” he said.
“What we are saying, is that every single piece of food that comes in from overseas will say ‘this is imported. It has not been grown or processed under Australian health and hygiene standards and may be injurious to your health’.”
The speakers asked the crowd of growers, union members and concerned locals to choose SPC Ardmona products over cheaper imports. “Without that educated consumer choice we cannot protect our industry and we cannot protect our jobs,” said local councillor Fern Summer. “Our unskilled demographic relies heavily on the fruit trade. Migrant workers establish themselves by putting in hard yards to make our industry prosper.”
Summer said that SPCA was responsible for “putting greater Shepparton on the map,” and had been a “fundamental part” the region’s identity since the 1920s.
The federal government announced on 27 April that it would provide concessional loans of up to $650,000 for farmers experiencing financial hardship, but it is still unclear how such grants will be administered.
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