It's a showdown! In one corner the farmers... arriving angry, hurting and desperate for answers…
“Who's making the profit because it’s not us,” screamed one farmer.
“We're at the mercy of imports when is the government going to take… you can have all these arguments, when do we get some action,” yelled another.
“We’re made to jump through hoops producing primary products in Australia yet imported product is not made to jump those hoops”.
In another corner… the politicians. From the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce, the Liberals’ Senator Bill Heffernan, who made the point, “…If it’s good enough for the government to come up with 100s of millions of dollars for a car industry why isn’t it good enough to get assistance for you guys?”
Bob Katter from Katter's Australia Party also attended. The Federal Government's Agricultural Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was a no show but some farmers have already met him and they’re not impressed...
“The Federal Agricultural Minister was here the other day. He was crapping on about BS, about letting the market forces dictate where we go, well screw you and your stinking market forces because we are not dealing with fair market forces, we are dealing with corrupt market forces and we’re the only ones that are playing by the rules,” said one farmer.
Margie Osmond, Ceo of the Australian National Retailers Association was there representing the supermarket duopoly Woolworths and Coles.
Cheap imports and supermarkets squeezing them on price are at the top of the farmers' list. The cheap imports are coming from countries that subsidise their own farmers and don’t have strict controls over spraying and wages. Fruit and vegetables imports nearly doubled in the last 7 years to 354 million dollars.
“The fact is that the government allows fruit to come here under standards that we're not allowed to compete with so we have these high levels of standards, high OH and S standards, high chemical standards, high labour rates,” Pear grower Peter Hall said.
Peach grower Rocky Mantovani drove in a truck full of dead peach trees. 750,000 hectares of peach trees have been torched in Victoria's Goulburn Valley.
For years, Rocky and his son Vince have delivered tonne upon tonne of juicy, ripe peach - but they've been suddenly spat out by S-P-C.
“It's the government for allowing this fruit and vegetables and whatever they let in from China - and then it's the supermarkets for accepting it all,” said Rocky.
Sixty other growers are in the same boat - their entire cannery contracts have been ripped and shred - given no notice until the day SPC knocked on their door.
Rocky makes the point that the tin of Homebrand imported peach slices from South Africa retail for just $1.49 while the SPC Australian peaches cost more than double that at $3.99.
SPC is owned by coca cola... the SPC Ardmona factory is across the road from our forum site yet with just 24 hours left before our event SPC told us they'd be a no show blaming a media blackout ahead of its annual results.
Peter Hall grows pears, peaches, apples and apricots. Like all Aussie farmers his fruit is tested for 135 chemicals… supermarkets demand this but the same fruit and vegetables imported into Australia are only tested for 50 of these chemical.
“The trouble is the government makes us jump through these hoops then they say to the rest of the world you don’t have to jump through these hoops, we'll just make the Aussies do that,” said Peter.
“One of the things that frustrates the daylights out of us growers is the fact we can’t differentiate our products on supermarket shelves because the labelling laws are atrocious”.
Tomato grower Bruce Weeks points out we import 100,000 tonnes of tomato paste from China... yet the labels don’t reflect this.
“I will challenge anyone to go to a supermarket and find the word China on any tomato product. They are hidden by ‘imported from Italy’ …it’s just amazing, you can’t find the word China,” Bruce said.
Senator Heffernan gave another similar example: “The vegetables that come from China into NZ are labelled product of NZ. Because of the closer economic arrangement we have with NZ we don’t test them for chemicals”.
Barnaby Joyce advised farmers to use consumer legislation to push for action and promised his support.
“I’ll give you 100 percent of my commitment with the power I have, I will push for clearer branding laws as soon as we get back in power,” Barnaby said.
Potato farmer Mick Frawley’s potato prices have plunged 20 percent in the last five years due to imports from Belgium, the Netherlands and New Zealand. He’s also up against countries that pay far less for wages.
“I was in Belgium a few years ago and they employ people at 8 dollars an hour. We get backpackers, we pay them 21 dollars an hour,” Mick says.
Australia imported more than a hundred thousand tonnes of imported frozen fries last year alone.
“Just because it's frozen they think it's safe - but what's happened before it was frozen,” he said.
Some farmers call for tariffs to fix the problem... It’s a tax our Federal Government could slap on other countries importing into Australia. It would raise the cost of imported products and make it more competitive with local. The problem is tarriffs go against the Free Trade Agreement we've signed.
Bob Katter’s response?
“If you can’t do anything about the dollar and tariffs and you think we can continue to work out there at the most un-level playing field in the world then please give us some money so we can roll our swag and get the hell out of agriculture.”
Barnaby Joyce admits tariffs are a difficult thing to get passed in government. “I’ve got to give you an answer and I’ve got to be straight with you, I don’t think I can do that, I can’t get the numbers for it .”
Dairy Farmer Greg Brooks lays the blame of his dying industry squarely on the shoulders of the supermarkets and their dollar a litre milk.
“There’s two simple things that would eliminate a lot of problems. Take Coles and Woolies out of the processing area, they’re retailers get them out of that area,” Greg says.
Margie was quick to respond for Coles and Woolworths…
“The big retailers have a third of their stores, a third of their employees, and a third of their customers in regional communities, they don’t have businesses without regional communities and they know that,’ Margie says.
Lamb and cattle farmer Robert Belcher told the audience the price he gets from the supermarkets for lamb has halved in 12 months... He pleads with city folk to buy Australian only and lobby government to look after Australian meat and produce.
“We have a dogs’ breakfast mess and if I’m scaring Australia you need to be scared for Gods’ sake wake up.”