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Drought, water prices and mechanisation force dried fruit producers out of industry

By Grace Whiteside, Monday March 16, 2020 - 15:27 EDT
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Dried fruit growers are pulling out of the industry due to high water and labour prices. - ABC

Tony Loffler has been on his Pyap property in South Australia's Riverland for more than 30 years.

In three months he will leave his house and land and turn off the water to his vineyard and fruit trees.

Mr Loffler is one of many long-term dried fruit producers pulling out of the industry after years of drought, high water prices, mechanisation, and competition from the wine grape sector.

"You're competing with wine grapes, which are nearly totally operational from the tractor seat," he said.

"You've got the same weather pressures at harvest time, whether you're going to end up drying it or you're going to end up selling it to the wineries.

"You need to do the process [of producing dried vine fruit] by the calendar, not necessarily by the fruit's ripeness, maturity or sugar levels."

Time to go

Mr Loffler sees the dried fruit business as a shrinking industry.

"The changes over time have been significant, but the dollar returns definitely haven't changed significantly to keep up with the ongoing costs," he said.

"When we started the cost of labour was $6.50 per hour — it's now over $25 per hour, and product return definitely hasn't quadrupled in that time.

"So the future is fraught [for] people who hang in there … in some ways, you're having an expensive hobby producing dried fruit and selling it for, to me, under the cost of production."

Industry body Dried Fruits Australia said the industry was shifting from many individual growers to large corporations with extensive plantation areas.

Chair Mark King said that was keeping the industry afloat.

"When you've got somebody planting up that type of area it well and truly makes up for people leaving the industry, the people that have been there for a long time," he said.

"It's mainly the people near retirement age, with the price of water what it is and people wanting to buy land — they're the ones we're seeing leave the industry.

"The land's probably at a record high price and water is at a record high price, and the growers that want to retire are taking that opportunity.

"I don't think anyone could blame them for that."

High demand, limited product

One thing Mr Loffler and Mr King agree on is that the product is in high demand.

"[Dried fruits] are products that are in scarce supply and in demand across the country, and if you're keen enough, to be exported," Mr Loffler said.

"The production of dried stone fruit peaked at about 3,500 tonnes of dried apricots in the mid-90s.

"Nowadays, if every dried apricot was accounted for, the whole industry might get to 350 tonnes in a good year.

"Dried vine fruits have basically done the same thing — the sultana industry peaked at about 9,400 tonnes in the mid-90s.

"The labour costs, the water costs, the amount of work involved...the market place needs to be paying a bit better — well, not just a bit better.

"For a good product there is a market. Consumers are very savvy and are happy to buy and pay for Australian-quality product.

"We definitely didn't make millions out of it, but we had the satisfaction of selling quality product and in the main we had happy customers."

'Sadly missed'

Mr King said strong demand for Australian-grown produce had kept prices high.

"We're at the highest price for dried fruit in history," he said.

"At the moment it's somewhere between $2,600 and $2,800 [a tonne], depending on the grade that you get and a few other factors … for that reason a lot of people are saying it's a great industry."

He said there are currently about 400 dried fruit growers around Australia, compared to 2,000-3,000 producers in the late 1990s.

"When the wine grape industry started to boom a lot of people went over to wine grapes," Mr King said.

But despite high demand and good prices now, many of the production costs are too high to keep smaller long-term producers in the industry.

Mr King said it was disappointing to hear that Mr Loffler was leaving the sector.

"It's a shame to see him go, but then again, he's taking this opportunity to retire when the opportunity is right," Mr King said.

"I wish Tony all the best, he's been great for the industry and he'll be sadly missed from that part of the world."


© ABC 2020

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