A combination of challenges in the form of high temporary water prices, reduced water allocations and prolonged drought have brought the Riverland stone fruit industry to its knees. Waikerie stone fruit grower and Dried Tree Fruits Australia chairman, Kris Werner, said the industry had reached "a fork in the road", with many growers opting out and no incentive for new faces to join the sector.
"We were in a big drive, five years ago, to press new varieties," Werner said. "Even last year, we released a heap of new varieties that give you better returns for the same work. But if you haven't got the certainty of water nobody's going to get into the industry. There's no incentive - apart from maybe avocados and almonds - for anyone to start up. The industry is on its knees at the moment. We've been trying our best to give it CPR but all these challenges keep coming up."
On their three-hectare orchard, the Werners grow peaches, pears, apricots, peacharines and nectarines, selling the majority of their produce to wholesalers. Starting with a 15 per cent allocation this season, Werner said the uncertainty surrounding water availability made it extremely difficult for them to plan ahead: "We needed to prune in June, July, August and when you have a 15 per cent allocation (in May) it's hard to know where to prune to. It was early September before we reached a 60 per cent allocation and that's not enough to carry a full crop. We bit the bullet and cut off 200 trees so they won't produce - we'll just keep them alive. That alone is a $10,000 to $15,000 loss in income."
According to an article on goodfruitandvegetables.com.au¸ Werner hopes recent drought relief funding from the federal government will be used by councils to provide farmers relief from paying council rates.