Source: SMH – Lucy Carroll

Australian farmers predict the production of locally grown vegetables for canning will come to an end within two years, as cheap imports and demand for fresh food ”decimate” the market. As the federal government rejected a multimillion-dollar assistance package for food processor SPC Ardmona, Cowra farmer Ed Fagan said this year would be the first in more than five generations his farm would not harvest beetroot for canning.

”We’ve run out of people to grow for,” said Mr Fagan, one of the country’s last beetroot growers. ”You walk into the supermarket and realise the canned food is not what it used to be. The industry is a shadow of what it was 15 years ago.”

He said high labour costs, the decision by major supermarkets to sell more imported goods and an overwhelming demand for fresh, organic vegetables had forced him to find new methods of processing commercial crops. His answer is to vacuum seal beetroot in Cryovac bags, applying a similar technology used to pack meat.

”The beetroot is cooked and packed but uses no preservatives,” he said. ”It’s the bridge between canned and fresh food.” A spokesman for AusVeg, the industry body representing 9000 growers, said more farmers would be forced to find alternative methods of production as the ”crisis” facing the processing industry escalated.

Figures supplied by AusVeg show imports of canned tomatoes have almost tripled in the past two decades, from 23 million kilograms in 1996 to almost 62 million kilograms last year. The value of imported canned peas has risen from about $500,000 in 1996 to more than $3 million last year.

The government’s rejection of SPC Ardmona’s bid for $25 million to help keep its Victorian canneries operating could cost up to 3000 jobs. MP Sharman Stone, whose electorate includes the SPC factory, said the rejection could wipe out Australian processing of fruit, tomatoes and baked beans. ”The factory has already done major restructuring,” Dr Stone said. ”It’s brought its workforce down by 30 per cent and they have shut two of their factories.

”This isn’t a wage issue, it’s a problem of the cheap imported fruit which is flooding our supermarket shelves. Nothing has been done in the way of tariffs or duties to level up that dumping situation.” Last year, Simplot, which produces Edgell canned corn and beetroot, threatened to close processing plants in Bathurst and Devonport because of ”competitive pressures”. The plants will remain open, but only for a guaranteed three years.

”If the next review isn’t favourable, it will be the end of food processing in Australia,” said Bathurst farmer Jeff McSpedden. ”It will put Australian consumers at risk because everything will be imported. ”Supermarkets claim they want to stock Australian-grown vegetables but it won’t make a difference unless they push the price of imported products up … People don’t know what they’re buying. They want to support Australians but when it comes to money they want to save.”

Coles and Woolworths source their private-label canned fruit locally – from SPC – but many canned mushrooms come from China, tomatoes from Italy, beetroot from New Zealand and asparagus from Peru. Mr McSpedden, who grows about 2000 tonnes of sweet corn for Simplot each year, has been forced to cut staff. ”Eight years ago we were growing 500 tonnes of red, green cabbage and sauerkraut for canning. Now that’s all gone.”