AUSTRALIA – When you’re lined up at the supermarket, green grocer or deli getting your grocery shopping sorted, the people who actually grew and produced your food are often the last thing on your mind.
But this summer’s bushfire disaster brought primary producers to the front of our national psyche.
Dr Jen Taylor, research director at CSIRO, tells SBS Food, “If you look at the fires as a whole, they’ve hit some of our most productive areas, all through NSW, Victoria, the Gippsland area, South Australia and Tasmania; areas that are heavy in horticulture, wine, red meat and dairy.”
As for how different food sectors were affected, it’s a nuanced picture. Taylor notes, “When you drill down, it’s highly variable; some enterprises have been completely wiped out, others were minimally impacted, and it’s difficult to separate the impact of the bushfires from the drought.
“If you look at the fires as a whole, they’ve hit some of our most productive areas.”
“For instance, the national sheep and cattle herd is the lowest it’s been in three decades, and that’s mainly a drought effect.”
Her forecast is that while we won’t suddenly experience a scarcity of particular foods, we’ll be shelling out more at the checkout (for instance, for fresh fruit and vegetables, wine and dairy), and this will flow on to restaurant prices.
The grassroots’ view
For Geoff Jones, a cattle producer, wholesaler and butcher in the Clarence Valley of NSW, the fire crisis didn’t claim any of his stock, but it still affected them.
“The drought and fires meant that I had no feed, so the cows lost condition and everything has been set back [in the breeding, growing and finishing cycle], and my production line has pulled up,” he says.
Prices hinge on supply and demand, so Geoff’s prediction is that citizens could notice 20-30 per cent price spikes for beef, possibly for the next 24 months.
As for dairy, which also took a blow, it’s still unclear. Alex Evans, corporate communications manager at Dairy Australia, says, “It’s too early to estimate the impact on herd numbers and milk production.”
Over in the Snowy Mountains town of Batlow in NSW, Greg Mouat’s apple orchard was one of the orchards in the region that were burned in the fires.
“We have about 14,000 trees, mainly apples and a few cherries, and we lost probably 10-12 per cent of them,” he says.
“In a lot of cases trees [that were singed] will regrow, but it will affect our production for two to three years into the future and some trees will have to be completely removed and replanted, then we’ll have to wait five years until the new trees are back in production.”
For consumers, Mouat thinks the Batlow fires will mean fewer green sticker apples on the market this year (and in turn, steeper prices) and possibly into next year.
Scorched vineyards and smoke taint questions
Like Batlow, Adelaide Hills wine country was another farming region that was hard hit. Almost a third of vineyards were affected, according to Adelaide Hills Wine Region spokespeople.
Fifth generation grape grower and wine maker Simon Tolley was struck by a double-whammy, with both of his vineyards damaged.
“About 30 per cent of our family-owned vineyard was burnt, and at my personal vineyard, about 80 per cent, or every row except for 30 rows of vines, was burnt,” he says.
While some of the damaged vines are salvageable, and can be cut off and retrained, Tolley estimates it will take about three years to get a decent crop.
The big unknown that Tolley – and grape growers in regions as diverse as Canberra, the Hunter Valley and Victoria – face right now is potential smoke taint.
“We don’t know how much of the remaining fruit will be able to be sold, and we won’t know until two weeks prior to harvest, when we test them,” he explains.
Again, it may mean consumers pay more for wine (Simon expects price spikes into next year) and the grapes in your favourite vino may be sourced from a different region until vineyards restabilise.
Living with uncertainty
Grape growers aren’t the only producers grappling with uncertainty: the honey and oyster industries are also unsure about how severely their production will be impacted by the fires.
Oyster farmer Caroline Henry is based at Wonboyn Lake in NSW, an area surrounded by national parks and wilderness.
While her oysters weren’t directly damaged, 100 per cent of the surrounding catchment was burnt, and the big fear now, ironically, is heavy rain.
“If we get massive rains, it will wash sediment from the fires into the water course, which can lead to algal blooms and issues with the oysters not being able to filter feed,” she says.
If this eventuates (and it may happen months from now), the food authorities will close them down for trade.
For now, there are plenty of healthy, succulent oysters available, so Henry says it’s the ideal time for everyday folks to buy them.
Beekeepers are similarly in limbo, including East Gippsland apiarist Ben Murphy.
“We had 450 of our hives in the fire-affected area, and lost a bit over 200 hives, including a lot of our queens,” he says.
“Almonds, canola, oranges and apples all rely on bees being healthy to pollinate crops.”
Murphy’s biggest hurdle is that about 75 per cent of the eucalyptus forest sites he leases for his bees were burnt, and could take up to 10 years to regenerate. While it’s too early to say, if bees are disrupted, other industries may be too.
“Almonds, canola, oranges and apples all rely on bees being healthy to pollinate crops,” says Murphy.
For now, he predicts an immediate price rise in honey, and a shortage of certain varieties such as Bloodwood.
From the flames, a new food attitude
While sustainability, food waste and the story behind what we eat has been getting more airtime in recent years, the bushfire crisis, on the back of a drought, may make these issues even more mainstream.
“I’m hoping we’ll see more of the paddock-to-plate story, where supermarkets work harder to connect produce to farmers,” says Taylor.
She’s also optimistic that the challenge of climate variability will drive consumer interest in sustainability credentials, water use and carbon neutrality.
“I’m hoping we’ll see more of the paddock to plate story, where supermarkets work harder to connect produce to farmers.”
NSW Farmers president James Jackson predicts we can also expect to see more ‘imperfect’ produce, for instance apples, or oysters, which were harvested at sub-optimal size, as a result of the fires.
“Some commodities won’t be perfectly shaped, but they’ll taste fine and there won’t be any food safety issues,” he says.
So, what can we all do to help farmers get back on their feet? For starters, buy Australian produce.