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Bowen primary producers struggling six months on from Cyclone Debbie

Tom Major, Tuesday October 10, 2017 - 12:23 EDT
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Persistent poor fishing since Cyclone Debbie is forcing Bowen's fishing fleet to push north in search of a better catch. - ABC

Low prices, bad fishing and the ongoing costs of repairs are just part of the story for cyclone-hit primary producers in the Bowen region.

Six months along, they are still recovering from the financial hit they suffered after the category four Cyclone Debbie struck the coast.

Fishing drops off

In the months leading up to Debbie's destructive impact, Bowen's fishermen were experiencing some of the best catches of their careers.

Bowen Fisherman's Seafood director Brett Bower said it was an ominous sign of things to come.

"A few months before the cyclone was the best catch rates I've seen in years, or that I can even remember," he said.

"[It] gave us the feeling that something was happening for them all to be biting that keenly."

However, the cyclone's impact was harsh on the grounds fished by Mr Bower and other Bowen-based professionals.

"It was a bit of a hair-raising experience, it just lasted so long," he said.

"Normally they don't hold out for as long but it was a fair while before we could get out to tie things down again."

Damage to Mr Bower's boats from the cyclone is progressing slowly due to the scale of the storm's damage.

"There's so many people in the queue waiting to get done [but] it's a bit of a reality that most of it hasn't been done and we're about to start the new cyclone season," he said.

"The fishing's definitely dropped off since then; you can't catch much out there at the moment [so] the boats have been going north working up towards Townsville."

In a double blow, prices have slumped too, with the once-lucrative live coral trout trade to Hong Kong weakening in recent months.

"I think in different stages the reef must build itself up and up, and then all of a sudden it must withstand so much pressure from Mother Nature," Mr Bowers said.

"But usually, within six months, we're fishing pretty good again.

"The [coral] trout drop off but the lipper [redthroat emperor] usually pick up because they're eating around the dead coral."

Veggie prices sink

Meanwhile the region's fruit and vegetable farmers have experienced disastrous prices as their post-Debbie planted crops ripen.

Tomato, pumpkin and capsicums have all been selling at or below the cost of production in recent weeks according to Bowen-Gumlu Growers' Association president Carl Walker.

"It's causing enormous amounts of strain on businesses; I know we're suffering, which would be magnified exponentially to other growers who grow a lot more than me," he said.

"In a year like this year, the more you've got, the more you lose.

"I think it's a big thing in our industry that we've really got to focus on — you've still got producers who don't understand the impact of sending a product to market at below cost.

"Not only are you costing your business money, but you're actually depressing the market for a longer term."

While any top quality produce is retaining a price slightly above costs, second class fruit and vegetables is not worth harvesting at current prices according to Mr Walker.

Many growers are now facing the heartbreak of ploughing crops back into the soil.

Grants outdated

While Category C recovery grants of up to $25,000 have been offered by the Commonwealth Government and recently extended until January next year, Mr Walker said the consolidation of the region's farms warranted an increase to that figure.

"Once in the Bowen region we had over 200 producers; now it's down to 66 and we grow two to three times what [we did] when there were 200 growers," he said.

"So nowadays, when you apply for $25,000 — don't get me wrong, it does help — but nine times out of 10, it's not even enough to gravel the driveway.

"You're only eligible for one per business, so where once upon a time there used to be 200 grants, there's only about 60 now."

Organic bonus

While low prices have affected his conventional crops, Jamie Jurgens has found a handy buffer through his organic in-conversion crops.

"We're trying to work directly with our customers as much as we can, working towards, at the end of the year, having an audit to be fully organic," he said.

Around 10 per cent of his produce is now on the way to becoming organically certified.

"With the system we've got set up now, the way we're controlling input costs, making our own compost and using more bugs to fight bugs, we're not too far off the conventional costs," Mr Jurgens said.

"We're able to put them in stores at the moment at about five to 10 per cent cost above normal tomatoes."

Mr Jurgens said he believed organic farming would grow strongly as a percentage of fruit and vegetable crops produced.

"We've chosen this way of farming, not because we want to be organic [but] because we think it's the most sustainable approach to agriculture," he said.

"We've got next generations coming along [and] we want to have this farmland still as productive as it is today."


© ABC 2017

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