Frost bites Victorian and New South Wales farmsSkye Manson, Laurissa Smith and Lucy Barbour, Thursday October 31, 2013 - 15:45 EDT
Severe and widespread frost has ruined hundred of thousands of hectares of crop across New South Wales and Victoria, costing producers millions of dollars.
For the last month, successive frosts have damaged crops from Dubbo in western New South Wales, across to Goulburn and the Australian Capital Territory and down to Rutherglen in north-east Victoria.
Some crops of wheat, canola and wine grapes have been totally wiped out, while other producers are reporting 20 to 30 per cent yield loss.
The damage also extends to horticultural crops such as cherries and strawberries.
The timing is now critical for cereal croppers if they want to make any money from their crops.
Hay mowing and cutting contractors are working around the clock to cut stacks before all nutritional value is lost.
The price for hay is falling as a result and commodity analysts believe the price for feed grains will drop too.
One rural counselling service in the Riverina has written to various members of Parliament, asking for a disaster declaration so that financial assistance can be offered to affected farmers.
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Quantifying the losses
Australian Crop Forecasters has developed an online map detailing farms that have been hit by frost and those that are now cutting for hay.
Chief crop analyst Nicholas Brooks says the frost follows a line to the west of the Great Dividing Range.
"Basically the west of the Riverina is not as badly hit as the east. It almost looks like the areas now cutting for hay has followed the Great Dividing Range," he said.
"Wagga, Junee and West Wyalong are about as far west as we are seeing.
"Young and Temora to the north are badly affected as well.
"We are already getting some photos through of bales down around Cowra and Grenfell and as far north as Wellington and Tamworth."
In the Riverina, cropping agronomist with the Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Authority, Lisa Castleman, estimates 300,000 hectares of wheat, canola and barley have been hit by successive frosts in the last few weeks.
The damage follows the Billabong Creek across to Rand and Walla.
The Catchment Management Authority says the Murrumbidgee region had a minus 0.2 frost on September 27 and on October 4 the temperature dropped to minus 0.9.
A fortnight later, on Tuesday October 15, the temperature dropped to minus 1.2 degrees and then on Friday October 18 it dropped to minus three. The following Friday, October 25, another frost was recorded, measuring minus one.
Markets react to frost damage
Hay cutting and baling contractors are unexpectedly busy as a result of the widespread frost.
Right now, timing is critical and farmers need to act quickly to cut and mow crops of wheat and even canola before too much quality is lost.
Baling contractor Julie Brien, from Greenethorpe, near Cowra in New South Wales, says she's had to call in extra contractors to help with the workload.
"We've organised another local baler to come in and help out," she said.
"A lot of our normal clients have been hit quiet bad and we are just trying to organise to get it done as fast as we can."
The influx of crops being cut for hay is causing prices on the fodder market to slide.
In the last month, the value of low quality cereal hay has dropped by $50 per tonne.
This year, fodder prices reached record highs due to a short carry-over of stock across Australia.
Prices for low quality cereal hay reached $300 per tonne. Now they are around $150-$160 per tonne.
Caitlin Scholfield, of the Australian Fodder Industry Association, says prices will continue to weaken as significant amounts of low quality cereal hay begin to hit the market
"Prices have softened about $40-$50 a tonne," she said.
"I expect that the market will remain soft until Christmas."
"But if we don't see a good break in northern New South Wales and Queensland, I expect that coming into the New Year we'll see prices start to rise again."
Wheat and canola
The series of successive frosts over the last fortnight has stolen the season from many New South Wales grain farmers.
Many good looking crops have now been reduced to ruin and aren't even worth harvesting.
The worst frost occurred on Monday night, October 14, across the areas of Greenethorpe, Cowra, Canowindra, Grenfell and Young.
Elders agronomist Mark Hinderager says farmers were hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
"Yeah, this was a bad frost. We were especially not expecting a middle of October frost," he said.
The lowest temperatures were recorded on Robert Taylor's farm at Greenethorpe, where it was minus four degrees for a number of hours.
The farm, which is prone to frost, is being used as a trial site for frost research work with the CSIRO.
Researcher Ben Trevaskis says it's a bitter sweet outcome for the organisation.
"I feel for the growers and don't want to be too pleased, but that is the hope, that we do get something out of that," he said.
"And eventually improve the background frost resistance of the varieties that are being grown and that could make a real difference, which may one day minimise the element of risk when they sow each year."
The damage is also bad on the state's south-west slopes and southern tablelands.
On the south-west slopes, frost has now ruined more than half of some wheat and canola crops.
The area had six frosts in October and crop losses are estimated to between 30 and 60 per cent.
Grain producer Tony Flannery, from Galong, has resorted to cutting all his canola to make silage, which he'll eventually feed to his livestock.
He says it could take him up to seven years to recover.
"It's a huge hit to our income, immense," he said.
"I think most people have no comprehension of (the) cost of putting crops in these days.
"For an operation the size of ours, we have an overdraft of around $800,000, so we're not even going to go within a bull's roar of covering that to put a crop back in next year.
"But honestly, there's a lot of people worse off than me (and) you've just got to grin and bear it."
Harden agronomist Tim Condon says a lack of rain throughout September and October has also affected crops.
"There's severe moisture stress which is limiting yield," he said.
"So crops that looked like being five tonnes to the hectare are now more likely to be back to three tonnes to the hectare."
Wine grape crops have also suffered dramatic losses as a result of the frosts.
Grape growers in the Riverina, the biggest wine producing region in NSW, are in disbelief after entire blocks of fruit were wiped out.
The cold snap which hit the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in mid-October affected both red and white varieties right across the region.
Horticulturalist Peter Reynolds says it's a big blow.
"Some of the guys are just shattered. They've gone through the floods 18 months ago, and last year wasn't that good.
"Then to turn around and get smashed with the frost is just devastating for some of them and some guys have just said, 'well, that's what it is'."
The Riverina Wine Grapes Marketing Board has been out assessing damage to vines.
It estimates crop losses of up to 80 per cent in some blocks of grapes at Leeton and damage to 60 per cent of some blocks of fruit at Darlington Point.
In Tumbarumba, mainland Australia's coldest wine region, the damage was particularly severe.
Frost fans and sprinklers were used to reduce the impact of the frost, but growers still lost between 30 and 100 per cent of their crops.
It's a similar story further east, at Murrumbateman, on the southern tablelands of New South Wales.
Some growers have reported losses of 50 to 100 per cent in low-lying areas, while others say their vines have survived unscathed.
The frosts followed one of the earliest bud bursts in decades for the region.
Winemaker Tim Kirk, from Clonakilla vineyard, says overall he's lost 60 to 70 per cent of his fruit.
"There's no doubt that we're feeling a little bit glum," he said.
"You know, people work so hard. We've got a whole team of staff here who are working in the vineyard through all sorts of weather conditions and to see all of that work kind of reduced to wilting, brown shoots after two hours of sub-zero temperatures, it has an impact on you, it's quite depressing."
The frosted shoots are now black and the leaves crumple when scrunched together.
"That's not a sound you want to hear at this time of year," Tim explained.
"You can see there, there's a tiny little bud, which will shoot again, and within a month you'll have another beautiful green shoot coming out, but there'll be much less fruit on a shoot that comes from a secondary bud, if any at all."
The quantity of grapes produced in the district will take a dive this year, and it'll cost the local industry millions of dollars.
"Just on my front block, which is really one of our very very favourite blocks for shiraz viognier, it just produces the most amazing fruit, we've lost 70 per cent there," Mr Kirk said.
"And for that block alone, you're looking at well over a million dollars worth of shiraz viognier."
Winemaker Ken Helm has lost two of his vineyards to frost damage, but he's confident there'll still be a decent crop this year.
"One of the really nice things is that we've been contacted by wine makers around Australia and particularly in South Australia," he said.
"I've had offers of fruit being shipped across to help me out if we don't get any fruit this year, which is a very nice gesture. The wine industry pulls together in times of adversity."
Mr Kirk says he's already thinking about ways to prevent the frost damage from occurring again.
"There are other systems you can use which actually spray water through the vineyard," he said.
"The freezing on the buds stops them going below zero, but you need a huge body of water and massive pumps to be able to get it out over the whole vineyard quickly, so there are lots of logistical issues with setting something like that up.
He's also investigated installing fans for the vines, but says the area is too built-up and the noise could cause concern.
The only answer at this stage is planting vines at a higher altitude.
"After the big frost that affected the 2007 vintage, we did plant a couple more vineyards up on the higher ground we have here at Clonakilla, and they did survive, so that was in retrospect a very wise decision."
The early bud burst this year had made growers nervous about the potential for frost damage but Tim Kirk says it wasn't all to blame.
"My experience is that October's actually been pretty cool," he said.
"If you have a frost on the 18th of October, you're always going to get hammered, so you can't really blame early budburst or climate change for this particular example.
"But what's interesting to me, as someone who's observed the seasons here at Clonakilla for 42 years now, is the variability of the seasons. The fact that September was so warm and now that October seems to be quite cool."
He says growers in the region are trying to stay positive.
"We will get a vintage this year. It's just going to be smaller than we like and there's no reason why the quality shouldn't be extremely high.
"You just count your blessings, I think, in a situation like this."
Wine grape growers in the Cowra region have spent the last few days assessing the damage, and while it appears widespread, there are some variable reports between vineyards.
Sam Statham, the chairman of the Cowra Region Vineyard Association, says the frost patches are easily visible across the region's vineyards.
His organic vines at the Rosnay yard were bitten, with up to half of the cabernet and a third of the Semillon and merlot blocks burnt.
But Mr Statham says it's not all bad, as the frost may have helped to thin out the fruit for a better quality vintage come 2014.
"We've had sections of the vineyard which were very heavily affected. I think we had minus two and a half on the 15th, the 18th and the 25th of October," he said.
"And bottom corners of the vineyard have been completely frosted off, so there's no green growth at all. But then, as you come back up the hill, it's kind of patchy and you've got vines that have been half frosted and half not frosted.
"And then basically the higher you go, the less frost there's been, and also where the vine has got a higher fruiting zone there's also less damage."
Cherries and strawberries
The Huntley Berry Farm near Orange says its first flush of strawberries have been wiped out from successive frosts last Thursday and Friday.
Manager David Walker says the flowers on almost 40,000 strawberry plants were burnt out leaving them fruitless.
He says the farm has had to postpone its popular 'pick your own' season.
"The frost has burnt the inner part of the flowers and its been rather disastrous actually," he said.
"I'd say the great God of berries hasn't liked us this year, she's not smiling on us."
Further south at Young, orchardists are reeling from a black frost a fortnight ago.
Robert Fitzpatrick says on one low-lying block he's lost 40 to 50 per cent of his plums, prunes, peaches and nectarines.
"This one you didn't even know it had been there," he said.
"This could equate to 15 to 20 tonne, maybe more."
"It doesn't matter where you look, it's been a problem. But it has been variable. It will depend on how low the country is."
In terms of cherries, Mr Fitzpatrick says he knows some smaller growers have had significant losses of about 80 per cent.
The NSW Farmers Association says there is very little in the way of insurance products that cover frost damage.
One Griffith-based company, Latevo International, is offering limited cover for the 2013 crop with the backing of insurance giant Allianz.
Association president Fiona Simson says she has some reservations about that product.
"It's quite expensive and you have to provide historical production figures to back up your claim and it's more or less an income protection."
She believes there will be some farmers who have lost large parts of their crops, who will be unable to fill grain contracts they have forward sold.
"There were very promising crops in grain and canola and many people did forward sell. This year with the frosts people are going to be caught out and I guess that's a normal part of production."
Farmers have already started 'washing out' any forward contracts entered into earlier in the season.
Ms Simson wants the Australian Government to consider backing a multi-peril insurance scheme like the one partly financed by the US Government.
"It's supported to the tune of about 70 per cent of the cost, as part of the US farm bill."
She says there will be discussions with government about multi-peril crop insurance when Barnaby Joyce settles into his new role as Agriculture Minister.
"We have to make sure Government have a suite of policies that recognise the importance of food production, whether they come on board with a subsidy for an insurance product or recognise agriculture in other ways. But Government has been absent in any sort of recognition of agriculture."
Ms Simson says she has received reports of widespread damage from frost in the Riverina, Monaro, Corowa, Rand, West Wyalong, Goulburn and Cowra, with producers now assessing the impact to crops including wheat and canola, wine grapes, prunes, berries and cherries.
© ABC 2013
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