Food for thought

Haidee Vandenberghe and Kate MatthewsCountryman

As increasing amounts of interstate and international produce hits retailers' shelves, farmers say it's time for consumers to decide whether they want to keep WA fresh food industries alive.

Recent weeks have seen some WA market agents truck in apples from the eastern states instead of sourcing them locally. Fruit is also coming in from other countries.

It might be cheaper for the market agents but third generation Donnybrook apple grower Stephen Dilley said if that trend continued it would spell the end of WA's commercial fruit industry.

"Any farming that's got fairly significant labour costs like the apple industry is living on borrowed time," he said.

"The floodgates are about to open and I don't believe that Australian growers can compete head to head with other countries that have got labour costs that are fraction of what ours are. I think the commercial industry as we know it in WA will be struggling to be here in 5-10 years."

The dairy industry is also at a crossroads, with processor Lion this week trucking in 150,000 litres of fresh milk from South Australia due to shortages in WA.

Processors say the supermarkets' one dollar a litre campaign for fresh milk has simply left them unable to pay farmers more for their milk.

Greenbushes dairy farmer Tony Pratico believes trucking SA milk is a slap in the face for local producers.

"Dairy farmers are annoyed because under a supply and demand situation, when the processors get short is when we've got some negotiating power," he said.

"They are cutting us out of the system of supply and demand. Instead of bringing milk in when they're short, they should be out there actively getting new suppliers and giving a signal so we can grow the milk industry in WA.

"If we've got $1 milk into the next 10 years, I think the dairy industry in WA will burn."

When the pork industry was hit hard by imports, it decimated the local industry.

Now sheep producers, who are experiencing the lowest numbers on record, have a decision to make.

If production doesn't lift, Sheep Industry Leadership Council chairman Rob Warburton warns the capacity of processors and live exporters will fall which will force prices down because the ability to run profitable businesses will decrease.

"If the numbers aren't enough to warrant the industry being here, it will move," he said.

The situation looks brighter for the cattle industry but it also faced the sharp end of the sustainability sword when just one processor was left operating.

Donnybrook beef producer John Fry said the trickle of beef from the east onto WA supermarket shelves was nothing compared to the devastation producers would feel if the plug on live exports, important for competition and sustainability of the industry, was pulled.

He strongly advocates labelling to show the State of origin and quality so cheaper interstate meat does not undercut local products.

"The best thing we could have in Australia is a compulsory grading system so every cut would be labelled appropriately and people could simply choose what they wanted to eat - low quality eastern states (cuts) and high quality WA (cuts) at this time of the year and probably the reverse another time of the year," Mr Fry said.

Mr Dilley and Mr Pratico also believe branding is one of the keys and say consumers hold the fate of the industries in their hands.

"Realistically, the only chance we've got of surviving is if WA consumers, and also WA retailers, actually buy WA product," Mr Dilley said.

"Our message to WA consumers is that if you want really good quality, safe, locally produced apples and fruit, then buy WA and reject interstate and international imported product."

Mr Pratico called on consumers to support the branded products.

"In the long term it will benefit the industry," he said. "Consumers need to realise that fresh milk for breakfast will be a luxury if the industry continues to shrink."

IGA chairman John Cummings said 60 years ago every consumer had a family member on the land.

"Nowadays, there are generations who don't even know what farmers do," Mr Cummings said.

This lack of knowledge had perpetuated misconceptions about farming and it had been made worse by national advertising campaigns that had created confusion and hysteria, including hormone-free and more recently Coles saying they did not freeze or thaw fruit and vegetables which no retailer practiced, he said.

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