Supply of plums, peaches and nectarines in doubt as storms ravage stone-fruit orchards

Supply of plums, peaches and nectarines in doubt as storms ravage stone-fruit orchards

Weeks of wild weather in Victoria is likely to mean less stone fruit on supermarket shelves, after hail and heavy rain smashed Australia’s main production regions. 

Key points:

  • Stone-fruit growers have suffered millions of dollars of damage after hail and intense storms
  • Vegetable and table grape crops are also affected
  • CSIRO’s David Post says climate change is bringing more extreme weather

Victoria produces about 75 per cent of Australia’s total stone-fruit harvest, including nectarines, peaches, plums and apricots.

But after intense storms in the two weeks since Christmas battered the Swan Hill region and the Goulburn Valley in northern Victoria, farmers warn hundreds of tonnes of fruit has been damaged.

It has left fruit and vegetable growers facing tens of millions of dollars in losses, with many saying the damaged fruit will now either go to waste or be fed to stock.

Northern Victoria’s stone fruit growers have suffered major losses due to heavy storms.(ABC Swan Hill: Francesco Salvo)

Summerfruit Australia chairman and Swan Hill grower Dean Morpeth said between 20 and 40 per cent of fruit in that region had not yet been harvested and could now be damaged, leading to “millions” of dollars in losses for growers.

He said hail damage left pock marks on fruit and could make it unsaleable, while heavy rain “affects the skin” of the fruit, leaving it susceptible to rot.

Summerfruit Australia chairman Dean Morpeth says stone fruit growers have lost “millions”.(ABC Rural: Caitlyn Gribbin)

Millions in losses to stone fruit crops

On average, Australians consume about three kilograms of apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums a year, making stone fruit more popular than pineapples and mangoes.

Until Christmas Eve, Victoria’s summer fruit season had been going well, with supermarkets well stocked.

But several storms and bursts of heavy rain have changed that.

Mr Morpeth said a lot of fruit had gone to waste and would be shipped to companies with cattle, goats, or sheep to be used as feed, which meant “zero income” for farmers.

High supermarket and retail standards meant much of the fruit could not be sold.

“The shame is, there’s nothing wrong with the fruit,” he said.

“It’s just that that’s the perception … unfortunately, people purchase with their eyes, and they don’t like to see [damaged fruit].”

Other fruit that was still fit for human consumption had been downgraded from export quality to “class two” grade, meaning farmers would be paid between $1 and $1.50 less per kilogram for the produce, he said.

Supermarkets assessing impact

Spokespeople for Coles and Woolworths said the supermarkets were still assessing the damage from this week’s heavy rain.

A Woolworths spokesperson said it was too early to know whether store prices would be affected.

“[It] would be “determined by supply and demand, and we will consider whether our fruit specifications need to be adjusted in response,” the spokesperson said.

A Coles spokesperson said the company was working closely with its suppliers, but “we don’t expect there will be any major impact to stone fruit availability or quality”.

Nectarine grower Peta Thornton says she had to drain the orchard of excessive water.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Francesco Salvo)

Nectarine grower Peta Thornton was hit with more than 100 millimetres of rain this week.

She set up pumps to drain orchards that had become submerged in water.

“If the trees sit in water for a longer period than a couple of days, it can certainly kill them,” she said.

A flooded stone fruit orchard after heavy rain in northern Victoria.(Supplied: Dean Morpeth)

Meanwhile, in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria’s north-east, Fruit Growers Victoria spokesman Michael Crisera said farmers were facing $10 million in losses.

The region is home to stone fruit growers and is the largest apple and pear-growing region in the country.

Mr Crisera said storms damaged about 500 hectares of orchards, with losses ranging from 40 to 100 per cent of fruit.

“Some growers have been impacted two years in a row, and that’s a very difficult situation,” he said.

“It’s rotten luck, to be honest.”

Vegetable crops in water, wheat downgraded

It was not just fruit lost in the storms.

Rochester tomato grower David Chirnside estimated about a fifth of his processing tomato crops would be lost to waterlogging after 100mm of rain on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day left them standing in water for days.

“We had pumps set up but weren’t quite prepared for the amount of rain that ended up falling,” Mr Chirnside said.

With harvest fast approaching, Mr Chirnside said he was “just trying to keep the rest alive at the moment”.

It’s the second consecutive season the tomato grower has been hit with excessive rainfall after October rains in 2022 prevented crops from being planted.

Meanwhile, grain growers are facing major quality downgrades as a result of persistent rain since December.

Grains analyst Matt Kelly from Kelly Grains estimated 70 per cent of Victoria’s wheat crop had been downgraded — with much of it unable to be used for anything but livestock feed.

Wet weather three weeks before the grape harvest has damaged fruit.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Francesco Salvo)

The wet weather has also created potential disease outbreaks for grape growers in the Swan Hill region.

Woorinen table grape grower Joey Prochilo had flash flooding among his vines just three weeks out from harvest after a 100mm downpour on Monday.

He has been unable to spray his crops against fungal diseases like botrytis and powdery mildew as well as pests such as mealybug because the ground was too wet.

“When you have these conditions with high humidity, you are losing the battle,” Mr Prochilo said.

Joey Prochilo says the ground is too wet to be able to treat the table grape vines.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Francesco Salvo)

Intense storms becoming more common

CSIRO senior principal research scientist David Post said heavy storms and flash flooding were becoming more common as a result of global warming.

“[An] aspect of global warming is that the warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. So pretty much all the modelling and all of the information we have about how the system operates is that the intense storms are going to get more intense,” he said.

“Engineers are working on about a 20 per cent increase in some of the extreme storms. So where you might have got 100 millimetres [of rain] in a day, you might get 120 millimetres in a day of rainfall,” he said.

Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered each Friday.

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