Australians are lucky to enjoy a never-ending summer of fruit and vegetable supply because there is always a ripening season somewhere in this huge country.
But strain on farmers from a sequence of natural disasters is evident, with supermarkets apologising for a lack of some fresh and frozen products.
“We’ve lost critical planting windows through every major growing area in Australia in the last few months, and you can’t make that up,” Tasmanian Farmers Vegetable Council chairperson Nathan Richardson said.
“We have four seasons, and you can’t go back in time and plant out seed. It doesn’t work.
“It’s affected everything from leafy greens to all your processed vegetables, above and below ground crops.”
Like many farmers in southern Australia, Mr Richardson has struggled to get equipment onto the paddocks to plant next season’s vegetables.
He has been challenged by another wet La Nina year, skyrocketing fuel and fertiliser costs due to the Ukraine war, and a shortage of immigrant workers.
The combination of events was likely to impact supplies and prices well into 2023, with Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers last month warning the cost of fruit and vegetables will rise by a further 8 per cent cent.
Shopping with ‘a calculator’
Hobart shopper Lesley Haynes said the prices could “put you off going to the supermarket but it’s no one’s fault”.
“It’s the weather. We can’t do anything about it,” she said.
“You look around, and everyone is looking. Everyone is sizing up what they are going to buy.
“Everyone has a list and a calculator — you never saw that before.”
Ms Haynes said it was “a bit scary” but the population was “all in it together”.
“Like COVID, we need to just pull together and be polite and think of others,” she said.
Rob Thomas, a consumer turned producer, has headed back to the garden and was teaching children to grow their own potatoes.
“I’ve introduced my grandchildren to growing, and tell them, ‘This is where your chips will come from,'” he said.
For thrifty shoppers like Lana Geappen, it has become harder to support local Tasmanian farmers.
“[When lettuce hit $12] we didn’t buy any,” she said.
“I couldn’t fathom it. I just didn’t buy it.”
Ms Geappen said she might have to be even more careful, depending on “how extreme the prices go up”.
High prices to continue
The government’s agricultural commodity economists at ABARES were still calculating the impact of floods.
Executive director Dr Jared Greenville said flooding had hit important agricultural regions.
“Flooding is occurring in LGAs (local government areas) that account for 40 per cent of the value of Australian agricultural production, which is quite widespread in comparison to what we’ve seen in recent years,” he said.
Shaune Lindhe from peak body AusVeg said price spikes would likely to continue for some time.
“Many areas across Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales continue to experience devastating wet weather and floods, which are continuing to impact many parts of the agriculture industry, as well as regional and rural communities,” he said.
“While we do not know the full extent of the impact on vegetable crops, we know there has been a range of farmers impacted, including fruit and vegetable growers in Tasmania and other regions.”
The price rises come amid global debate about whether consumers were paying for the real cost of food.
A joint study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and market data company Trucost found the environment’s role — with natural disasters exacerbated by climate change — was not being fully calculated in the cost of producing food.
Processors expect increased demand
Frozen vegetable processor Simplot said it continued to face ongoing challenges due to recent local and global weather events and logistics issues.
“These culminating factors will likely increase demand for frozen produce, which may lead to consumers seeing fewer frozen vegetables in the freezer,” a spokesperson said.
“In recent months, we have implemented some list price increases on our products, which has largely been driven by rising commodity costs.”
The spokesperson said consumers might see some shortages in the future.
“We are anticipating there may be some impacts due to crop availability.
“However, we still need to evaluate the effects of recent rain events along the Australian east coast.
“Where we have shortages, we are managing these through some SKU [stock keeping unit] rationalisation.”
Frozen food and chip producer McCain Food Services said this year had been challenging for growers, given it had been one of the wettest spring seasons on record.
“However, we don’t anticipate that recent rainfall across Tasmania will affect our ability to supply to our customers in the immediate future and believe that our shorter season potato crop variety will allow for a reasonable crop to be achieved,” a spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said McCain was helping support growers in the affected regions, from planting to harvesting.
‘Greater demand, higher prices’
Back on the farm in Tasmania, Nathan Richardson predicted Australian consumers would have little choice about prices in the future.
“It’s a classic case of supply, greater demand, higher prices,” he said.
“They will have to buy local. There won’t be the influx of [imported] goods coming in.
“Whether it’s a $12 lettuce, who knows where the pendulum will fall on the price of potatoes in the near future. Same thing, less supply.”
Mr Richardson pleaded with consumers not to blame farmers at a time when the cost of transport, energy, cold storage and labor were all rising.
“There’s a lot of other links in the supply chain,” he said.