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Stanthorpe farmers go to incredible lengths to weather horror season of fires, drought

By Courtney Wilson, Sunday October 20, 2019 - 06:33 EDT
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A combination of bushfires and crippling drought has put Stanthorpe producers in a desperate position. - ABC

In September, catastrophic bush fires ravaged properties in the Granite Belt, Queensland's cool climate country.

It was an emotional hit in an area where farmers are battling drought and the town of Stanthorpe is in the grip of a critical water shortage.

"There's no doubt that there are some landowners, because of and , that probably won't continue in their primary production businesses," Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Tracy Dobie said.

"It has had a devastating effect on those people."

Across the region, producers are going to incredible lengths to stay in the game.

In 72 years of farming on Golden Grove Estate near Stanthorpe, this year marked a milestone the Costanzo family hoped would never come.

Their vineyard officially ran dry.

"We've never run out of water here on Golden Grove," Sam Costanzo said.

"But you can never say never, can you?"

This spring, the Costanzos have been trucking in water to give their parched vineyard a much-needed drink.

At a cost of about $20,000 a megalitre, it's an expensive exercise.

"We were just amazed at the vegetable growers around us last year carting water to get through their season," Mr Costanzo said.

"We thought, 'imagine having to do that?' And here we are, having to do it ourselves.

"Have you ever woken up at one o'clock at night and not been able to sleep any more? Well that's about what happens every single night.

"You lie there thinking what's going to happen, what are we going to do?"

Every drop of water is so precious, the Costanzos are bypassing the main line and pumping it directly onto their vineyard to ensure nothing is wasted.

Despite the hard work and hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent, the season is still up in the air.

"Ultimately it's only just to keep them alive, we're not really aiming for a crop at this stage," winemaker Ray Costanzo said.

"Worst-case scenario, we have to mothball that vineyard just to make sure that those vines stay alive because there's hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment there that of course we don't want to lose."

A $60 million blow to the local economy

The reality of this drought is that many producers will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Granite Belt Growers Assosication (GBGA) recently ran a survey to gauge the financial impact of the drought.

It showed about $60 million less in economic activity for the local region and a reduction of about $40 million in wages in the 2019-20 financial year.

"Stanthorpe is probably a fairly average-sized country town and I'd say $100 million out of a town in one financial year is likely to be pretty devastating," GBGA president Angus Ferrier said.

On Mr Ferrier's own property, about 40 kilometres west of Stanthorpe, 2,500 mature stone-fruit trees have been demolished.

"We're at about 15 per cent of our orchard demolished," he said.

"In the short term, we've abandoned another 15 per cent and put them on minimum rations and we're actively growing about 70 per cent of our orchard.

"Pushing out trees is not a decision we take lightly because the developed area of orchard is worth something like $50,000 a hectare.

"Therefore we've got a big capital cost coming our way to re-establish those blocks, but we've got to focus on the short- to medium-term first and prioritising our water where it's still going to turn a dollar in this tough season."

Difficult decisions are being made across the shire to ensure that at least some crops still make it to market.

After spending almost , this year Tim Carnell went down a different road.

He leased land outside the family farm's usual growing area because it has at least some water.

Regardless, he's one of only a handful of growers actually planting this season, and his crop is still heavily reduced.

"We've got about a million of these [capsicums] going in this year and that's about a 50 per cent reduction," Mr Carnell said.

While production out of the Granite Belt growing region will be drastically reduced this summer, producers are adamant they're down but not out.

"Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt are still in business," Mr Carnell said.

"We still have apples and berries and stone fruit and vegetable lines being produced, albeit in smaller quantities."

Watch this story on ABC TV's Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on .


© ABC 2019

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