Former Nats leader weighs in on future of Victorian agriculture

Agriculture intact, says former Nationals leader Pat MacNamara

Coronavirus
VIEWPOINT: Former Nationals leader and walnut farmer Pat MacNamara, Nagambie, says Victoria is well-placed to recover from COVID-19. Photo by Louise Roberts.

VIEWPOINT: Former Nationals leader and walnut farmer Pat MacNamara, Nagambie, says Victoria is well-placed to recover from COVID-19. Photo by Louise Roberts.

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Former Nationals leader Pat MacNamara talks politics and walnuts.

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Former Nationals leader Pat MacNamara says Victoria's agriculture sector has remained intact during coronavirus, praising both the state and federal governments for reducing the footprint of the pandemic.

The former deputy premier turned walnut farmer described Australia's response to COVID-19 as "impressive" as states and territories lift restrictions four months after the crisis hit the country's shores.

"ScoMo's [Scott Morrison] approval rating is through the roof and it's incredible that we've had less than 100 fatalities in a country of 25 million people while the US is up around 80,000 dead," Mr MacNamara said.

"What I've found impressive is that all the states and territories have got on board as part of this National Cabinet and Australia has been very well coordinated, as has New Zealand and Victoria is included in that."

Mr MacNamara, 70, was the 21st deputy premier of Victoria and held the seat of Benalla for 18 years, including an 11-year stint as Nationals leader between 1992 and 1999.

While most of his time these days is spent in the shadows of public life, he said the federal government's JobKeeper scheme was vital to keeping people in regional communities employed during the crisis.

At the Nagambie Rowing Club, one of the Goulburn Valley's oldest sporting clubs which dates back to the 1880s, 22 of the club's 30 employees are receiving payments under the package as pubs and clubs remained closed until next month.

Mr MacNamara, the club's treasurer, said the package had assisted clubs across regional Australia which had closed during some of their busiest periods.

"The way the government has tackled COVID-19 has been outstanding and JobKeeper is proof of that," he said.

During his time in parliament, Mr MacNamara held a number of portfolios including tourism, police and emergency services, corrections and agriculture.

It was during his time as agriculture minister when he toured the Department of Agriculture's 11 research stations across Victoria when he became interested in walnut farming.

"We had Ellinbank looking at dairy, Myrtleford was focused on alpine produce and at the time tobacco was popular and we went up to Sunraysia which was looking at research on table grapes and citrus," he said.

"Then Shepparton was focused on all the produce in the Goulburn Valley and when I was doing the tour ... I was shown a small block with some walnuts by a scientist called Harold Adem."

"At the time these scientists were suggesting I should get into dairy or tobacco or citrus but when I met Harold, he was one of the only scientists who had actually invested his own money into his own walnut farm which was an area he was researching."

The interaction sparked what would become a hobby and eventually a career after politics for Mr MacNamara and his wife, Merryl.

Walnuts and grapevines

Ten minutes north of Nagambie, the MacNamaras have 32 hectares which is planted out with about 9000 walnut trees.

"The farm's called Burramurra ... I tell people it's the Aboriginal word for the home of premium wine and walnuts," Mr MacNamara said.

On a good year, up to 60 tonnes of walnuts are harvested and distributed to independent grocers and supermarkets across Victoria.

Six hectares of grapevines on the property supply fruit for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon which are sold to Mitchelton Wines at Nagambie, owned by billionaire Gerry Ryan.

Each tree usually produces about 13 kilograms of walnuts annually, however, a "cold snap" in October/November last year reduced the ability for some flowers to produce the fruit.

"Up to half the yield was lost for some growers," Mr MacNamara, who finished harvest three weeks ago, said.

"I haven't spoken to any of our growers who haven't had anything less than a 40 per cent."

Only 2pc of walnuts consumed by Australians are grown domestically, with the bulk imported from California.

Dispatching in a global pandemic

Walnuts harvested in the region are processed at a factory owned by eight walnut farmers at Toolamba but since COVID-19, farm gate sales have plummeted in the region.

It prompted Mr MacNamara to organise "drop-offs" of walnuts to one member of the Turkish, Greek and Italian communities, and from there the produce was distributed through friends and family.

"We had 30 to 40 bus loads of mainly tourists up here last year so in order to try and recoup some of our consumers, most of which are people from the Mediterranean, we dropped them off to one person in each of those communities," Mr MacNamara said.

"We've probably sold about 10 tonnes of walnuts that way."

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