FOOD BOWL: BGGA chairman Carl Walker discussing damage to the area's horticultural industry from Cyclone Debbie with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
FOOD BOWL: BGGA chairman Carl Walker discussing damage to the area's horticultural industry from Cyclone Debbie with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Eve Reitmajer

Winter produce supports region

MOST people in Australia are probably unaware the vast majority of fresh produce they will consume during winter has been grown just up the road at the Whitsundays on about 65 farms in the Bowen/Gumlu region - the nation's largest winter growing district.

Most people also won't know that 70-90% of all tomatoes and capsicums grown in Australia during September and October come from the north Queensland area, or that there's such a diversity in produce including capsicums, eggplants, chillis, zucchinis, squash, beans, corn, pumpkins and cucumbers.

Peak growing season has begun and a workforce of about 3500 locals and backpackers is set to prepare, plant and harvest the crops which make up the $450-million-a-year industry.

"So it's huge, absolutely huge,” says Julia Wheway, agriculture workforce officer with Bowen Gumlu Growers Association, a membership group which represents the region's farms.

Ms Wheway says Bowen is a vibrant community each winter, with its economy boosted, and a national supply of fruit and vegetables primed, picked and plucked ready for delivery.

Bowen Gumlu Growers' Association president Carl Walker says "there's nothing better than watching the little green plants grow - I'm not sick of it.”

Mr Walker, who's passionate about providing "safe” produce for Australia, says horticulture is the largest economic driver in the region which also supplies about hundreds of tonnes of "second-grade” produce - "there's nothing wrong with it” - to local Food Bank in Brisbane at no cost.

He says many people don't realise how significant the Bowen/Gumlu region is in its contribution to their winter diet and the efforts farmers go to in achieving high standards of food security and traceability.

"I think people have got to realise - all over Australia - that food security is the number one priority of any nation. If we have issues, the consumer will have to pay more money for its product.

Mr Walker says all produce from the region has "100 per cent traceability”, meaning there is regular testing of chemical residues, spraying is documented, and water is regularly tested.

"Without the 10,000 hectares of what we grow here, there would be some sad and sorry people in the cities because there'd be limited veggies to eat during winter.

"Or there wouldn't be the volume to have a sustainable price line - consumers need an affordable price line - they don't want to be paying $20 a kilo.

"I don't think people realise how important it is - how the whole structure of the Whitsundays echoes around the farmers.

"We're here year in year out, whether we make money or lose money. Every year there's a farmer here turning over the soil and planting crops regardless of the previous year.”

One of the main challenges for the region's industry, Mr Walker says, is that 30-40% of our crops are "unusable raw material” because of odd shapes and blemishes.

"Which is incredible. It's outside the spec of what the supermarkets demand.”

He says he is working to determine ways that companies could turn the produce into powders or pastes.

"We're wasting fertiliser, the water, the spray because the buyers want stuff that's perfect. Unfortunately, Australia grows enough food to feed 40-50 million people, and there's only 24 million people in the country.

"Waste is a big thing. We've been working on it for a few years but it's hard finding an economically sustainable model that's ongoing.”

Mr Walker says farming was once a "lifestyle” but was now a business - 2% of the nation's population are farmers and feed the entire country.

"Our cost structure to grow and produce a product is enormous. If farmer's aren't getting $2 a kilogram for capsicums and tomatoes then they're going broke, and last year most farmers got less than that.”

He says that while cheap imports were always a threat, he encouraged buyers to value the "clean, green vegetables” of the district that were grown using a model that's "safe for your family and children to eat”.

"Consumers can look at, 'Do I want to spend a little extra to get Australian-grown products or do I want to save a couple of dollars and not know how it's been treated or what chemicals have been used.”

Ms Wheway said it was also vital for locals to know there were work opportunities available in horticulture and agriculture in Bowen/Gumlu.

"Of the 3500-strong workforce, there are approximately a quarter of these numbers employed permanently year-round from the local workforce.

"There's employment opportunities other than in the traditional industries they would think of for the Whitsundays, like tourism.”

She says the region relies heavily on the flexible itinerary of backpackers for picking and packing roles, however the farms also employ locals and people under the Seasonal Worker Program from the Pacific Islands.

"Growers employ locals permanently in various positions such as farm hands, administration and locals obtain work picking and packing along side backpackers. 

"Most farms are able to offer full-time work for six days per week consistently during the harvest season.

"And if someone has a keen interest in farming - we're only 40 minutes from Airlie Beach - it's not all picking and packing. There's IT work, quality control, and driving and supervisory roles are always in demand.”

She says the association wants to connect with locals, especially people looking for work, and welcomes feedback from the community about how to better connect the workforce with the agricultural sector.

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