Canker bites the dust in Queensland
Replantings seed Emerald’s citrus industry with new hope, Fiona Cameron reports
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
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.