THE window of opportunity for Goulburn Valley fruit growers to call on help to pull their abandoned fruit trees from the ground gets smaller every day as harvest approaches.
Stalled by negotiations with their banks, orchardists cannot enlist help to pull the trees until an agreement is negotiated with their loan providers that would allow them to alter their farm’s assets.
Following a meeting held by the Victorian Farmers Federation Horticulture Branch at Shepparton on Tuesday night, stranded orchardists are no closer to getting their trees removed.
VFF policy and commodities executive manager Peter Hunt, who attended the meeting, said the delay caused by bank negotiations was “causing frustration”, and remaining orchards in the area were threatened by the abandoned trees, which were a breeding ground for pests and disease.
“There’s an opportunity now to help, but we need the banking sector to open the gate,” he said.
“There’s a mediation process the farmers have to go through before can sell off farm assets.”
The issue received attention on both the metropolitan and regional airwaves over the last two weeks, and many farmers had offered their tractors and machinery, along with hundreds of people from Melbourne and Sydney who had volunteered their time.
But due to the looming deadline of harvest, Mr Hunt said, farmers who were currently able to lend machinery and manpower to pull the trees would be too busy in the coming months.
“The real risk is significant delays in removing unwanted trees.
“They pose a major biosecurity risk to other trees in area.”
According to Victorian Pears and Apricots Growers Association president Tony Latina, the struggling orchardists, many of whom had been “culled” from SPC Ardmona in May, could not afford to live, let alone spray their unused trees.
Many growers in the Goulburn Valley had loans with the National Australia Bank
A spokesperson for NAB said the situation was being taken very seriously, but time was needed to work out how to proceed in each individual circumstance.
“We are working with impacted fruit-growing customers on a case-by-case basis.
“This is in line with NAB's long history of supporting our agribusiness customers to adapt to changing market conditions.”
For orchardists with heavier trees, however, having their crops removed was not being halted by banks hindering changes to the land, but by the cost of the large-scale excavation needed.
John Dimitropoulos, a pear grower near Shepparton with 10,000 trees to pull out, said it would take a commercial size excavator to remove his matured trees.
“We’ve got no money to put into our properties any more to get the trees out,” he said.
“And we’ve got no super left, so unless they [government] want to help us, we’ll be a burden on the welfare system soon.”
Mr Dimitropoulos said the only option to get his trees removed would be to wait for Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to excavate the orchard.
Last week the Victorian Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Peter Walsh, announced a Plant Biosecurity Amendment Bill, which would allow for farmers to call on DAFF to uproot their trees and have the cost added to their land title.
In the past, DAFF would not have been able to do this prior to the trees being assessed as a biosecurity hazard.
Farmers who didn’t want DAFF to remove the trees could have faced legal action.
Mr Walsh said the amendment left no reason for orchardists not to clear their farms, as the amendment meant the trees no longer had to be a biohazard before being removed by DAFF.
“The amendment will instead allow the government to place a charge against the title of the land,” he said.
“This charge can be paid by the property owner at a later time or, if the property is to be sold, it would be recovered during the property settlement.”
The policy revision had not been well received by all growers groups.
Fruit Growers Victoria general manager, John Wilson, said the amendment had caused some confusion amongst growers, but was really just a softening of existing controls.
“The announcement changed very little with the laws existing powers,” he said.
“With the changes, they can bypass going to the courts, and they can put the charge straight on the property.
“The government does not provide a plan… it’s not proactive, it’s reactive.”
Mr Wilson estimated it would cost about $3.00 for an excavator to remove a tree, or $3000 per ha, not taking into consideration labour or irrigation removal costs.
Using this estimate, it would cost Mr Dimitropoulos $30,000 to clear his orchard.
Rien Silverstein, VFF Shepparton Branch President, supported Mr Walsh’s policy amendment, but said any future government drastically needed to file policy that kept the industry in-house.
“If the tariffs were in place that would protect Australian growers across the board,” she said.