Buy Australian … while you can

A NUMBER of growers in our region will be impacted by Heinz’s decision to shut the Brisbane beetroot cannery and take the business overseas to New Zealand.
The cannery, by all accounts, is old, outdated and in desperate need of funds. But rather than spend the money foreign-owned Heinz  – which bought the Australian-owned Golden Circle co-op a few years ago – has decided to cut costs and shut the plant at the end of the year. Not only do about 160 people who work in the factory lose their jobs, but so too do nine farmers who grow their beetroot, as well as their their many staff and suppliers.
Some of the growers have been supplying Golden Circle for more than 50 years and just months before the decision was announced they were encouraged by the company’s representatives to invest in new equipment to ensure they remained at the forefront of the industry. Anyone who works in farming knows nothing to do with the industry is cheap so the grower’s machinery investments were not insignificant.
Apart from the obvious problems raised by this decision (loss of more rural jobs), there’s a bigger issue at play – our ability to buy Australian-grown food. Next time you crack open a can of beans, pop a bag of frozen vegetables, or even choose some fresh onions from the shelf of your local supermarket, have a look at the country of origin.
Chances are the information you’re provided with on the packaging is sketchy at best. I was shocked to read that the Baked Beans I regularly feed my kids were a mix of ‘Australian and overseas’ produce. WTF? Overseas? Where overseas? New Zealand or China. Believe me there’s a very big gap in growing standards between the two countries.
Australian farming standards are second to none. Our health and safety protocols and our food safety standards are among the highest in the world. Yet we’re doing very little to protect and support the industry which delivers such quality. We’re often the first to complain if the price of lettuce rises by 40c. Sure, the price of bananas at the moment is high but spare a thought for the farmers who have lost so much next time you grumble about paying the $14/kg for some sweet, ripe, fresh Aussie bananas. How many take-away coffees do you buy in a week? I spend far more than $14/week feeding my caffeine addiction.
Don’t be fooled if the packaging on your frozen vege says Product of Australia  … this country has suspect packaging laws which state that if the value of the packaging is higher than the value of the produce inside the packaging the product can be promoted as ‘Australian’. So while the packaging may be Australian, chances are your frozen vege were grown in China or another country that thrives on cheap labour and poor health and safety practices. Would you like some outlawed chemicals with that? Don’t sit quietly by as our fresh produce industry is weakened, be proactive, be vocal. Ask your local fresh produce supplier about the country of origin? Where were these apples grown? Are they fresh? Where did you source this garlic? Are these avocados Australian?
Buy Australian while you still can.

Last week my friend and fellow farmer’s wife, Gen Windley, and I wrote about the Golden Circle closure in our fortnightly column for Queensland Country Life. This is what we wrote.

QUEENSLAND beetroot growers say they were shocked and angered by Heinz’s decision to close the Golden Circle cannery at Northgate near Brisbane.The nine contract growers, situated in the Lockyer and Fassifern Valleys, say over the past 12 months Golden Circle staff encouraged them to invest in new equipment, assuring them their future was secure.The growers were understandably surprised when they were called to an urgent meeting with management at 10am last Friday to be told this season would be their last.Heinz Australia CEO Nigel Comer said the decision to close the Northgate beetroot operation at the end of the year had been made after an extensive review of the company’s manufacturing operations.Production will be shifted to Hastings New Zealand, along with some sauce and meal products.Fassifern Valley grower, Glenn Abbott, says his wife’s family – the Brents – are former Golden Circle shareholders and have been Golden Circle beetroot suppliers for more than 50 years. He’s overseen the family beetroot production for the past seven years and says he recently invested in a larger harvester to ensure an efficient and modern production at the encouragement of Golden Circle staff.“The Brent family’s relationship with Golden Circle goes back more than 50 years, before mechanisation all the way back to when crops were hand harvested. It’s about one-third of our business and over the past couple of years Golden Circle were telling everyone they needed to modernise their equipment. I bought a bigger, better harvester and bigger planting equipment – we’ve been keeping up with technology by they haven’t and that’s the problem.“They were starting to become antiquated and they were losing efficiencies, they hadn’t been putting money back into the factory.”Mr Abbott says three weeks ago growers were buoyed by a request from Golden Circle to increase production for this season, which has just got underway. He now suspects they were being asked to grow the crops which will be stored, and which will help Golden Circle maintain supply during the changeover period.Lockyer Valley grower, Linton Brimblecombe, says the news came completely out of left field. Mr Brimblecombe, who has 300 acres of beetroot planted this season, says it will be up to each enterprise to work out what to do now.“The cannery has committed to work with us on this one,” he says, “Although what that means is at this stage unclear. They have indicated that there will be some sort of package to assist those growers exiting the (beetroot) industry.“These farms are still viable but they now have spaces that have to be filled, and how to do that will be different for each enterprise.“We’ve asked the cannery to meet with each grower individually. We have a pretty good working relationship with the cannery.”Mr Brimblecombe is a former Golden Circle shareholder, but he doesn’t say it was a mistake to sell to Heinz.“I guess it’s a new beginning and we have to look at the positive,” he says.“It’s not the end of farming as we know it, but it’s the end of an era. Beetroot is a fairly iconic Queensland industry.”Yesterday the growers met with Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Food and Regional Economies, Tim Mulherin. The Queensland Government has committed to work with growers to ensure they have a viable future.“I want to come away from this meeting with a clear understanding of transitional arrangements needed by growers to ensure they suffer no lasting impacts from this change,” Mr Mulherin said earlier this week.“We will work with growers to transition into other crops or markets within Australia.“The nine affected growers are being offered financial and other assistance from Golden Circle to make these transitions.“Golden Circle has assured me that they will be working very closely with growers to ensure they receive the support they require to transition to other crops or supply arrangements. I am advised this will include financial support.“I understand that details of this support will be discussed with individual growers depending on their circumstances.“Golden Circle advised that this is a business decision to help them become more competitive in a challenging environment.
“They have confirmed their continuing commitment to Queensland with the announcement of a $20 million investment to upgrade beverage manufacturing facilities at Northgate.”