Fields of beautiful ripe fruit are being killed off in Queensland as the price of strawberries drops below the cost of production.
- Some farmers are spraying out fields as the price of strawberries drops below the cost of production
- Sales have been affected by COVID-19 lockdowns hitting supermarkets and food outlets
- A “pick your own” option is increasingly popular with smaller growers
Some growers have started spraying out blocks four to six weeks ahead of schedule, slammed by the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on sales in New South Wales and Victoria.
Queensland Strawberry Growers’ Association president Adrian Schultz estimated that demand was down as much as 50 per cent as Queensland farmers enter the usual peak of their growing season.
“They’re a touch-and-feel product. People like to pick them up and look at them and so we need that foot traffic. We need people going through the major stores, fruit and veggie shops,” Mr Schultz said.
Growers losing money
Queensland growers’ average cost of production is estimated to be around $1.30 for 250 grams.
Some supermarkets are selling strawberries for $1 a punnet to move their backlog of fruit.
“I’m just hoping that the impact of this [reduced demand] doesn’t result in more strawberry farmers going to the wall,” Mr Schultz said.
Growers have sent out an SOS, pleading with Australians to take advantage of the low prices and buy them by the basketful for healthy snacking and try them oven-roasted with a baked brie or in a spicy strawberry salsa.
In 2020, Australia’s strawberry production was valued at $435 million, with 82,310 tonnes of fruit grown nationally.
Around 42 per cent of of that yield comes from the Sunshine State.
The practice of spraying out crops usually only occurs at the end of the growing season and prevents the spread of disease from rotting fruit.
All spraying meets food safety standards and is not done on fruit that is for consumption.
New South Wales grower Asaf Bar Shalom hopes restrictions will end by the time Berrylicious starts its picking season in mid-October so that customers can visit his greenhouses at Thirlmere.
Many smaller growers are relying on diversification and a “pick your own” offering for survival.
Lillian McMartin has been growing strawberries for 35 years.
Four years ago, her family made the decision to reduce their number of strawberry plants from 700,000 to 34,000 and focus on “pick your own”.
The family also grows lychees, custard apples, figs and sugarcane on their Bli Bli property that Graham McMartin’s parents bought in 1945.
Their farm cafe sells award-winning ice cream and sorbet loaded with fresh fruit.
“We started off with jam and we found that wasn’t utilising enough fruit. So then we started making the ice cream as well and we do strawberry sundaes and loaded pancakes with fresh strawberries and strawberry sauce. It’s very good and very popular,” Ms McMartin said.
Visitors are charged $15/kg to pick beautiful, super ripe, red strawberries straight from the field.
Most of the nation’s export crop is grown in Western Australia.
Jamie Michael is one of the state’s largest strawberry growers, supplying fruit into the domestic, interstate and international markets.
He said Western Australia’s crop size was reduced by 25 per cent going into this season in anticipation of lower international exports, but the cutback was not enough to buffer producers from reduced prices.
At the peak of his season, Mr Michael stopped sending fruit to markets in New South Wales and Victoria after his agent told him he was “struggling to give them away”.
“A lot of farms are starting to open for ‘pick your own’ … the price is fairly low and they can get a good bulk amount of product and make some use of stuff that there is really no point picking.”
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