‘More money in budgie food’: Citrus grower says he has no choice but to rip his trees out and he’s not alone

‘More money in budgie food’: Citrus grower says he has no choice but to rip his trees out and he’s not alone

Fresh citrus has never been easier to find on Australia’s supermarket shelves.

But for an increasing number of growers of lemons, limes, oranges and other fruit, poor supermarket prices and rising labour costs are pushing them to rip out their trees.

For veteran farmers like Jason Sayer, it’s simply not worth growing fruit anymore 

Mr Sayer says he’s comfortable with his decision to leave the citrus industry.(ABC South West: Kate Forrester)

Two decades after shifting from wheat and sheep to citrus, the Sayers have decided to leave the industry because of rising costs.

An excavator has been booked to push over 1,500 trees at their farm near Wokalup, 150km south of Perth, this month. 

“The price of fertiliser, the cost of labour units, all our inputs have exponentially gone up,” Mr Sayer said.

“And we’re still getting the same pricing for fruit that we were getting 10 years ago.”

‘Just a handful’ of farmers left in region  

Mr Sayer said there were more than 30 growers in the area when he arrived.

But numbers have fallen to “just a handful” due, he says, to a lack of confidence in the industry.

“There’s a number of small to mid-sized growers in the south-west who have pulled out, so the total volume and diversity is reducing,” he said.

Approaching what should be his peak season, Mr Sayer is looking to other money-making ventures.

“I’ve worked in mining, dabbled in growing millets, sunflowers, you know, summer crops,” he said.

“I probably get a better return for growing food for budgies then what I do growing food for humans at the moment.”

Mr Sayer says it is increasingly impossible to make a living growing citrus in Australia.(ABC South West: Kate Forrester)

‘Game of screw the farmer’ 

Tamara Chinnery grows citrus and vegetables near Carnarvon, 900 kilometres north of Perth. 

Due to her location, Ms Chinnery’s oranges are some of the first in WA to be picked each year.

But she said imported fruit was pushing her out of the market. 

Tamara Chinnery says suppliers and supermarkets are more interested in imported fruit.(ABC Mid West Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)

“Imported fruit from Egypt or America tends to sell wholesale for $4 a kilo (compared to) our fruit, which is probably four months fresher (and) they want to give us $2 a kilo. We just don’t understand that,” she said. 

“It seems to be a game of screw the farmer.

“Freshly picked fruit is brimming with vitamin C, it’s fresh, it has a lot of juice — the imported fruit has been in cold storage for donkeys.” 

Ms Chinnery said she had considered ripping out her orange trees, but wouldn’t “just yet”. 

Ms Chinnery says she’s not yet prepared to abandon her orchards near Carnarvon.(ABC North West: Sophia Alston)

However, she said she was concerned about long-term viability of domestic fruit and vegetable production in Australia if consumers didn’t back local produce.

“We are hearing of people who are going to stop growing certain produce,” Ms Chinnery said.

“We personally are not going to grow certain vegetable lines anymore.

“We would probably make more money if we sat on the beach and went fishing.” 

A national problem

Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock said rising production costs were a significant concern for the industry right, from far north Queensland to south-west WA. 

“We are starting to see a number of people exiting the industry. It might be through going into other horticultural crops or they might be putting their properties up for sale,” he said. 

He said a string of difficult seasons were squeezing margins, with the pandemic and global conflicts affecting access and trade for key agricultural products.

“We are seeing pressure from retailers to keep prices down, but growers having to pay extra costs,” he said. 

Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock says the past few years have been very difficult for citrus producers.(Supplied: Citrus Australia)

Mr Hancock said the conflict in the Middle East was hurting shipping in and out of Australia. 

“Bringing in imports … like fertiliser, shipping has to go on extended routes around dangerous areas or can’t access ports and (it’s) the same when we export our goods — it’s adding days to our travel to certain countries,” he said. 

“On both sides of the ledger growers are paying for that.” 

Australian farmers are now filling the domestic juice market due to a disease in Florida citrus(Source: ABC Landline)

US disease pushes up juice price

In better news for growers, the value of juicing fruit has risen sharply this year. 

Globally the juicing market has been dominated by Brazil and Florida, but Mr Hancock said Florida had lost a lot of production due to a tree-killing disease outbreak. 

“That’s now to the point where supply out of Brazil can’t meet demand and that means the Australian citrus industry is now meeting the demand of local juice and juice drink products, which had recently been filled by Brazilian imports,” he said. 

“So that means the price for off-run oranges which don’t meet the specifications of retailers, but could be used in juice, now have a more viable home and that means overall profitability increases.” 

Mr Hancock expected the demand for juicing fruit to continue to increase and impact orange markets across Australia. 

But in context, the price for the seconds fruit had risen from a worthless $20 a tonne to $200 a tonne, which may cover the cost of growing the fruit. 

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