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Queensland farmer spends $800,000 carting water as drought ravages key salad-bowl regions

Amy Phillips, Kallee Buchanan, Lydia Burton and Melanie Groves, Wednesday June 12, 2019 - 06:29 EST
ABC image
Tomato and capsicum farmer Tim Carnell has spent $800,000 carting water for his crops. - ABC

A horror summer season has seen fruit and vegetable growers in Queensland go to extraordinary lengths to grow crops.

Currently 65.2 per cent of the state is drought-declared, which includes some of the state's key horticultural areas.

Farmers in the Granite Belt have told the ABC this drought is their "worst in living memory".

The region produces up to $350 million of fruit and vegetables every year, but this year that has been at risk with the area running out of water.

It forced one farmer, Tim Carnell, to spend more than $800,000 carting water to ensure he got a crop of tomatoes and capsicums.

"We started carting water on November 28 and we've only just knocked the trucks off, 176 days after we started," he said.

"We had Christmas and Boxing Day off but every other day and night, we had one, two, up to three semi-tankers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to keep our vegetable operation going.

"Our family spent in excess of $800,000 carting water this year to finish off the farms.

"We didn't cart water for our crops to grow, it was just supplementing them to get that extra yield. We have a high value crop with high-value customers and that was just what we had to do to get through the season."

Despite the extra expense, Mr Carnell said it was the right decision.

"It was a worthwhile decision and I guess the benefit we had was we knew what we were getting at the market when we were carting [water]," he said.

"In a tough summer season it certainly has cut away a fair bit of the bottom line but there was a little bit of reward for the effort we made this year … the numbers did stack up for us."

The drought also impacted Mr Carnell's yields.

"The hot dry summer certainly knocked the yields about but the profitability was bumped up by the higher market prices, so the economics did stack up as far as carting water is concerned," he said.

"We were probably sitting around 60–65 per cent of our yield … but we were very happy with the quality that came out the other end."

Mr Carnell said the last time his family carted water for their crops was in 2006–2007, but at the time their business was only 5 per cent of what it is today.

"We've seen it dry but not for as long as it has gone on for now," he said.

"It's been close to two years since we've had really good rain, Cyclone Debbie was the last good drink here and that was March 2017."

Drought puts pressure on prices

Most vegetable growers in Queensland send their produce to the Brisbane Markets where trader, Anthony Joseph from Alfred E Chaves, confirmed the tough growing season pushed prices up.

Mr Joseph said a heatwave in January also wiped out vegetables in other states.

"The heatwave hit vegetable production, particularly tomatoes, in Victoria and South Australia which added to the complications which we were having in Stanthorpe with the lack of water.

"So we saw exorbitant tomato prices for an extended period of time, things like broccoli was affected, lettuce and brassicas in the southern part of the country too."

Wholesalers said the price of tomatoes usually reflect the growing season.

"Tomatoes are a good barometer — for example, up until recently we still had very high prices at more than $4 a kilogram wholesale," Mr Joseph said.

"But today with Bundaberg going and Bowen starting to pick, we now have tomatoes at $2 to $2.50 a kilo and because of a great season in those regions, we also have some of the best quality tomatoes in months."

Northern season looks promising

In stark contrast to southern Queensland, a late monsoon and significant flooding in the north of the state has impacted vegetable crops around Bowen.

Neville Travers-Jones owns a nursery in Bowen that grows and supplies vegetable seedlings for producers in the Bowen-Gumlu region and the Burdekin, and said it was a rocky start to the year.

"We couldn't get any set of days that were dry, we had constant high humidity, a lot of showers, light drizzle, big heavy dews, the plants were pretty much dripping wet for the entire month," he said.

"So that created some challenges here in the nursery and on the farms for fungal foliar diseases."

The consistent wet weather meant some farmers had difficulty planting due to the soil being too wet to prepare, and the fungal diseases meant many lost a large percentage of the first pick through.

"That's a little worrying for the farmer because that's his first pay cheque, that pick of the bottom fruit," Mr Travers-Jones said.

But despite the issues in crops early in the year, Mr Travers-Jones is optimistic for the rest of the season.

"All our customers have done a great job, the fruit looks magnificent and the season is looking good, so I just hope the prices come through."

Greenhouses minimise drought impact

Further south, around Bundaberg, Anthony Rehbein has shifted from growing ginger and watermelons in paddocks to protected cropping systems, which has helped reduce some of the impacts of drought.

He said even with the greenhouse, this summer was brutal.

"Really it's the high humidity and the relentless days of no rain … this summer just went on and on, it's like a marathon," Mr Rehbein said.

"We're scaling down over the summer because it's just too hot, but we are trying to improve our greenhouse structures through cooling so that we can go a bit longer and plant earlier.

"We're trying to create microclimates … to ensure that the plant has a good day every day."

Mr Rehbein said the only downside to the system was the high cost of implementation.

"That initial set up prevents a lot of growers from wanting to go to protective cropping," he said.

"But once you've seen the quality that you can produce it's definitely worthwhile looking at.

"If you travel the world you'll see protective cropping structures are increasing."

Mr Rehbein also runs a retail store where he sells his vegetables and ginger products.

He said consumers demanded high-quality produce regardless of the conditions farmers faced.

"Most consumer just want their produce fresh and clean all the time," Mr Rehbein said.

"They really don't understand what it takes to get that strawberry or that piece of ginger or a tomato onto the shelf.

"That's a hurdle that we need to overcome because the quality is not always 100 per cent."


© ABC 2019

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