Like many, Coffs Harbour BGA chairman Wally Gately has no idea what will happen to his industry.
Like many, Coffs Harbour BGA chairman Wally Gately has no idea what will happen to his industry.

Import threat is real

BANANA growers on the Coffs Coast are walking a machete’s edge.

They will either cash in on a bumper crop or be priced out of the market by imports.

With up to 85 per cent of the North Queensland banana crop levelled by Cyclone Yasi, it’s still unknown how valuable local produce will be in filling a nationwide supply shortage.

The threat to them cashing in depends on whether Filipino imports stock supermarket shelves.

With the fruit bowl of Queensland lying in ruin, the value of a bunch yesterday rose to almost $6 kilo in line with market prices.

The Tully and Innisfail areas account for most of the produce in the $400 million banana industry.

Local growers say bananas could fetch $14 a kilo by June, prices seen after Cyclone Larry hit in Far North Queensland in March of 2006.

Member for Cowper Luke Hartsuyker warned that Filipino banana exporters were already moving to exploit the misfortunes of cyclone-affected growers.

He also said the devastation was no excuse for the Gillard Government to permit importations.

“Although there will be a short-term shortage of Australian bananas, we should be doing everything we can to get these farmers back in production,” Mr Hartsuyker said.

“It is essential that Australia remains free of exotic diseases such as Moko, Black Sigatoka and Freckle which are prevalent in Philippine bananas.

“Australia invests millions of dollars in quarantine and disease control every year.

“Allowing the Philippine banana into Australia will jeopardise the value of that investment and in my view is not worth the risk.”

After Cyclone Larry, the Howard Government rejected calls for imports to be permitted but in 2009, Biosecurity Australia gave conditional approval to Filipino imports.

The office of Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said the loss was still being counted. The Banana Growers Council’s Jonathan Eccles said he expects affected farmers to be back on their feet in four to five months.

“One good thing is that the cyclone has come in a little earlier than Larry did, so we’ve got a few more weeks of summer season for the young plants to go through,” Mr Eccles said.

National Farmers’ Federation president Jock Laurie said assessments of damage would be clearer over the next two days. He said the loss would almost certainly impact on prices.

“It did then and I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t now,” Mr Laurie said.

Ron Gray, the president of the Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga Banana Growers’ Association, said there would already be five weeks supply in the system, counting bananas ripening in cool rooms.

Coffs Harbour BGA chairman Wally Gately said the main issue locally was the falling number of growers.

“There are less than 200 local growers left,” Mr Gately said.

He said local growers had been struggling with wholesale prices as low as $6 for a 13kg carton of bananas when the break-even price was about $14 a carton.

Marking up prices to $5.98 a kilo, Woolworths pointed to an act of goodwill it had made to affected growers.

Woolworths has more than doubled the payments to Far North Queensland banana growers in the past seven days to the tune of over $3.9 million to help compensate for the cyclone damage.

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