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One grower's glut is another's gain: Sweet potato donations help farmers through drought

Eliza Goetze, Thursday September 6, 2018 - 14:15 EST
Audience submitted image
Tim Hill says sweet potatoes can provide a source of nutrition for cattle, if introduced carefully. - Audience submitted

Sweet potato farmers around Bundaberg in Queensland are making the best of a market glut by sending surplus produce to the aid of graziers struggling in drought.

Growers across the Bundaberg region, which produces more than 80 per cent of the country's sweet potato crop, have been forced to plough tonnes of potatoes back into the ground, with prices dropping as low as $2 a kilogram.

But growers Shana and Russell Mortimer have teamed up with a drought charity to send truckloads of the root vegetable as livestock feed to drought-stricken farmers and spurred other growers to follow suit, saying it is a win-win.

Diverting produce from the dirt

The Mortimers grow 120 hectares of sweet potatoes near The Hummock, east of Bundaberg.

Bright orange piles of excess product with blemishes such as splits that supermarkets will not accept dot the landscape.

New players and, ironically, too much good weather, has flooded the market.

"The type of sweet potato we're growing has a 30 per cent representation of waste that's not marketable and [previously it was] just being dumped back into the field," Mr Mortimer said.

Mrs Mortimer made a call to charity Aussie Helpers to see if they could donate their excess crop.

A week later, semi-trailers were rolling into the property to be loaded up, each carrying more than 20 tonnes a load, and now other farms around the region have got on board sending truckloads of sweet potatoes to drought-affected farms each week.

"Traditionally they'd be incorporated back into the soil, which is a problem for us down the track to establish new crop in that ground [due to] insects and disease," Mr Mortimer said.

"So it's doing us a good favour by moving it off the farm.

"It's not a whole food group for livestock but it's certainly a good supplement with dry feed and the like."

Mrs Mortimer became emotional when she contemplated the struggle faced by her drought-stricken counterparts.

"I just feel for those guys. It's terrible."

Mr Mortimer said they hope to make their weekly donation for as long as the farmers need it "or until we run out".

'A little ray of sunshine'

The recipients of the potatoes are "over the moon".

Cheryl and Lindsay Pfeiffer run a few hundred sheep and about 70 cattle on their property at Tullamore near Dubbo in New South Wales and have been facing drought for the last 15 months.

"It's affected us, like everybody. Financially, mentally, and just a lot of hard work and worry," Mrs Pfeiffer said, adding that when she looks out the window she sees "a desert".

"Each day you know what you're doing: feeding. It leaves little time to do any other work like farm maintenance," Mrs Pfeiffer said.

"We've been lucky to get some cattle and sheep nuts [pellets] and some hay … anything we can get our hands on."

Seeing truckloads of sweet potatoes unloaded was an exciting moment for the Pfeiffers who said their animals "just love them".

"For the first couple of days they just looked at them as if they were something from outer space," Mrs Pfeiffer said.

"We cut them up for them a little bit and once they got a hold of that we started throwing them in troughs and that's what they do. Even the sheep are eating them now."

Mrs Pfeiffer said the potato donations are helping feed the breeders to keep the cattle herd going.

"It gives them something to graze on during the day," she said.

"They're not going to put on weight but it's going to help keep them alive.

"It's like a little ray of sunshine up the paddock. You can't really fathom it … it's just amazing how people are so kind and thoughtful."

With hay in short supply and plenty of others vying for support from groups like Aussie Helpers, Mrs Pfeiffer said the potatoes would get them through the next week and after they would search for another food source.

Alternative food sources during drought

Bundaberg vet Tim Hill said foods like sweet potatoes can be a great source of nutrition for cattle as long as they are distributed carefully.

"The biggest issue with feed for cattle is the volume they need and getting that transported," Mr Hill said.

"The higher protein and energy we can get them, the better it is."

But like changing the diet of any animal or human, Mr Hill said moderation is key.

"If they're not used to it and they get a big bellyful of it, it can cause problems," he said.

"They can get a condition called Carbohydrate Overload which is like a grain toxicity, where it can … lead to diarrhoea, lethargy and even death if left untreated.

"They've got to try and feed it out over a large area so one bully cow can't get a big belly full of it and the others miss out.

"Even with things like hay, if you put a lot of it in one spot, one or two bullies will get it all if you're not careful."


© ABC 2018

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