Canker bites the dust in Queens­land

Re­plant­ings seed Emer­ald’s cit­rus in­dus­try with new hope, Fiona Cameron re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Prime Space -

AS cit­rus re­plant­ing gets un­der way around Emer­ald in cen­tral Queens­land, the talk is of an in­dus­try com­ing back to life. No cit­rus prop­er­ties have been sold at Emer­ald since 2004, when the dev­as­tat­ing canker hit a lo­cal farm, lead­ing to the area be­ing quar­an­tined and the lo­cal in­dus­try shut down.

Af­ter the canker was dis­cov­ered, ev­ery cit­rus tree in a 3000sq km area around Emer­ald was bull­dozed.

About half a mil­lion trees — even those in do­mes­tic back­yards — were de­stroyed un­der gov­ern­ment or­ders.

But de­spite re­plant­ing, the mar­ket for lemon, man­darin and orange farms is not likely to find its feet quickly, with grow­ers still five years away from earn­ing any in­come.

The new trees will not pro­duc­tion for seven years.

Queens­land’s Pri­mary In­dus­tries Min­is­ter, Tim Mul­herin, says re­plant­ing cit­rus at Emer­ald be­came le­gal on July 1, but there is ‘‘ still a lot of hard work to be done’’ be­fore Aus­tralia could be con­firmed free of canker.

The Emer­ald area had been a ‘‘ Fort Knox’’ for cit­rus trees and prod­ucts since 2004, says Mul­herin, but this month grow­ers started bring­ing in new trees that have un­der­gone strin­gent in­spec­tions by gov­ern­ment in­spec­tors.

About 180,000 trees will en­ter the area in the next three months and will be closely mon­i­tored, he says.

Her­ron Todd White val­uer Greg Wil­liams says two en­ter­prises — Ever­green and 2PH Farms — ac­counted for 80 per cent of Emer­ald’s cit­rus in­dus­try.

Af­ter the area’s or­chards were de­stroyed in 2004, farms had been in ‘‘ care

hit

full and main­te­nance’’ while man­agers awaited the go- ahead to re­plant. Wil­liams says that de­spite canker’s dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, the area’s big grow­ers ap­par­ently have not con­sid­ered mov­ing out of cit­rus grow­ing.

The past three years have given them the op­por­tu­nity to ‘‘ com­pletely reestab­lish their or­chards in a very mar­ke­to­ri­ented and tech­no­log­i­cal man­ner’’.

The new 2PH or­chards will be ‘‘ state of the art’’, planted with mod­ern, seed­less va­ri­eties to suit mar­ket de­mand.

‘‘ All their trees will be iden­ti­fi­able by GPS, so when you drive a trac­tor down the rows, if there’s one tree not do­ing so well, it’s recorded on com­puter and it will au­to­mat­i­cally get ex­tra fer­tiliser next time . . . it’s just amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy,’’ Wil­liams says.

Cot­ton is the largest ir­ri­gated crop around Emer­ald, but ‘‘ prices are so aw­ful a lot of cot­ton grow­ers would only grow that for prac­tice at the mo­ment’’.

The area’s ir­ri­ga­tion is fed by the mas­sive Fair­bairn Dam, sup­ply­ing 170,000 me­gal­itres a year to agri­cul­ture.

Af­ter cot­ton, ta­ble grapes and — un­til 2004 — cit­rus were the area’s big­gest crops.

In­dus­try sources say the canker ef­fect was felt way be­yond Emer­ald, on cit­rus farms fur­ther south around Gayn­dah and Mun­dub­bera, 600km away. No canker was found there, but all Queens­land grow­ers suf­fered from the ban on ex­port­ing cit­rus be­yond the state border.

Some big cit­rus prop­er­ties listed for sale at Mun­dub­bera, south­west of Bund­aberg, in 2004 failed to sell.

The Meyer fam­ily, which has been in the busi­ness for half a cen­tury, of­fered their five or­chards with an ex­pected sale price of up to $ 15 mil­lion, but no sale even­tu­ated.

Iron­i­cally, the Mun­dub­bera area’s cit­rus farm­ers have been reap­ing huge prof­its in re­cent years, with over­all sup­ply low­ered by Emer­ald’s ab­sence from the mar­ket. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the Chi­nese mar­ket has been open­ing up to Aus­tralian grow­ers, feed­ing pos­i­tive sen­ti­ment about the sec­tor.

Wil­liams says that at Emer­ald, it is im­pos­si­ble to say whether cit­rus farm val­ues have gone up or down in the past three years, as there is no sales ev­i­dence to sug­gest move­ment ei­ther way. ‘‘ But the vibe around town is fairly pos­i­tive, about the in­dus­try start­ing to re- es­tab­lish it­self.’’ he says.

Af­ter canker was found in 2004, ev­ery cit­rus tree in a 3000sq km area around Emer­ald was bull­dozed Pic­ture: Adam Smith

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