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Storm-hit banana growers to receive extra $50K in grants after weeks of uncertainty

By Tom Major, Wednesday April 14, 2021 - 03:52 EST
ABC image
Growers examine damage to banana crops following the March 1 windstorm. - ABC

Storm-stricken banana farmers have cautiously welcomed the Queensland Government's latest move to increase assistance grants as they battle to recover from the disaster.

About 1,200 hectares of banana crops were affected by winds associated with Tropical Cyclone Niran, which never made landfall, on March 1.

Since then, growers like Innisfail's Dianne Sciacca have been locked in a protracted dispute with the state over help offered to primary producers, especially following more generous support for New South Wales flood victims.

"It was 10 per cent of total growers, but we lost 100 per cent of our crop, [our argument was] why is that any less significant?" she said.

"If you don't speak up you get forgotten, it's a simple as that."

Initially, farmers were offered $25,000 emergency grants under Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA), however last night a state government spokeswoman confirmed the premier requested an increase to $75,000, co-funded by the Commonwealth.

The Federal government previously advised growers it would confirm any upgrade to disaster assistance if the state premier applied for such increases.

Workers vitally important

Mrs Sciacca laid off a dozen staff last month and hoped the extra funding would enable her to reemploy some of those workers.

But she is critical of the parameters that surround spending the emergency grants, saying capital infrastructure repairs come second to employing people to help clean up and replant.

"We need to be able to spend this money on employment," Mrs Sciacca said.

President of the Cassowary Coast Banana Growers' Association Dean Sinton has more than halved his workforce from 14 to six and says he will have to farewell another two by next week.

"Growth rates this time of year are high," he said.

"When you're short-staffed it prolongs the process of getting around farms to get jobs done."

Growers call for wage subsidies

Mr Sinton's business applied for JobKeeper but along with much of the industry, he was unsuccessful in gaining approvals.

The Martyville farmer said a wage subsidy, an initial request made by the dozen or so worst-hit growers, would be useful for the medium term.

"I'm sure a 50 per cent subsidy would go a long way, probably for the next six months," Mr Sinton said.

"By that stage severely affected growers would have some sort of productivity going."

Mrs Sciacca said Category C help under DRFA was well-meaning but not tailored for the horticulture industry.

"We don't need fencing and you can't grow a crop if you don't get in and clean-up," she said.

"The money is needed to employ people.

"People at the top of the chain, making the decisions, need to come and have a look and see what the needs were."

In response, Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said he was yet to hear from growers' organisations about wage subsidies, but was willing to engage on the matter. 

Better system needed

Six weeks after the storm, growers expressed frustration at the lack of engagement from the state, during which the matter passed through three different ministers' hands.

Hill MP Shane Knuth said he understood the different agencies involved came under different portfolios, but things needed to be streamlined in the future.

"There's the [Queensland] Reconstruction Authority that comes under a different minister," he said.

"Also you've got the Agriculture Minister. Obviously there needs to be a better process in place." 

Mr Knuth said he would support a review of the time taken to approve the extra funding.


© ABC 2021

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