How the bushfires are affecting our food producers - and how you can help

From the South Coast to Batlow and well beyond, the bushfires burning across south-eastern Australia have dealt a punishing blow to many of the region's primary producers.

Here are the stories of four industries that have been affected by the fires - and what you can do to help them survive.

One rotten fire won't spoil the whole bunch for Batlow apple growers

"We haven't really made money out of growing apples for the last five years," Batlow orchardist Ralph Wilson says.

His daughters ask why he would work 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week, just to make enough to survive.

The answer is simple.

"I really do like what I do," he said. "I get up in the morning and I'm not going to work. I'm going to do what I want to do.

"To plant trees, to nurture them, train them, water them, fertilise them, grow them up and then pick fruit off them, it's a very rewarding profession."

Damage at a Batlow orchard after the Dunns Road fire hit last weekend. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Damage at a Batlow orchard after the Dunns Road fire hit last weekend. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Orcharding might be a rewarding profession, but it's also a tough one and there is no better example of that than the damage the Dunns Road bushfire left in and around Batlow, a town famous for apples, last weekend.

Based on Mr Wilson's initial assessment of the aftermath at his property, Wilgro Orchards, he has suffered significant losses.

Firefighters have saved his house and roadside shop, but an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of trees - which could not be insured - have been lost.

A lengthy list of casualties at the orchard also includes the apple bin shed and contents worth about $60,000, irrigation equipment, last year's cider that was waiting to be bottled and a water tank. Hail netting worth up to $50,000 and unable to be insured has also been destroyed.

Still, Mr Wilson has no plans to call it a day, and he and wife Judy intend to press on with a scaled-down operation.

Already, he's sorting out insurance claims and trying to re-equip his property before a harvest next month.

"It's going to take a long time [to recover from the fire]," he said.

"I'm nearly 70 and we really can't go and re-plant orchard at our age.

"The time lag is about seven to 10 years from when you plant to when you start to make money out of it, and the industry is not very lucrative anyway.

"But our future is still very much in Batlow, there's no doubt about that, albeit probably with a bit less orchard."

Wilgro Orchards owner Ralph Wilson at his Batlow orchard in May 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Wilgro Orchards owner Ralph Wilson at his Batlow orchard in May 2019. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

While Mr Wilson came to orcharding as an adult, it has been in fellow Batlow man Greg Mouat's blood since birth.

The third-generation orchardist's property Mouats Farm, where he was born and raised, has been in the family since 1926.

That's why he was especially relieved to find the house still standing, along with his roadside stall, when he was able to return during the week.

Mr Mouat evacuated to Tumut ahead of the fire's arrival in Batlow and said it had been difficult to wait for news from afar.

"I fully expected not to have a house," he said. "The firefighters have done a huge job and we're forever grateful.

"You build up what is this emotional tie to the land, because it's been in the family and it becomes part of you.

"It's not like just buying a house in suburbia and having it for 20 years and then moving out and buying a more expensive one. This is your family. It's part and parcel of who you are.

"We've lost a shed and we've lost some trees, so we've had a little kick up the tail, but we're not down and out by any stretch of the imagination."

Mr Mouat said his early estimate was that the fire had claimed up to 15 per cent of his roughly 14,000 trees.

A Batlow Apples sign damaged by fire on Batlow Road. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

A Batlow Apples sign damaged by fire on Batlow Road. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

But he said he was in a positive frame of mind about bouncing back and urged tourists to come to Batlow and the surrounding area, and "make a weekend of it, drop some money in town", once things settled down.

"What we need is feet in the door," Mr Mouat said.

"If people are coming and buying our products directly from us, we do better off that than going through the system and sending it off to a supermarket."

Mr Mouat said he hoped Batlow and its importance in food production would make the town a priority for financial assistance from governments.

"It's not just the orchardists affected, it's the entire knock-on effect," he said.

"It's transport of the product out of the area. It's cool-storing and the packing, the administration, the distributors in the marketplace, the consumers ... everybody's affected by a lack of production one way or another, including the general public because if there's a lack of production there'll be higher prices.

"We've heard of the $2 billion over two years [as part of the new national bushfire recovery agency]. It would be nice to think that will trickle through and that food production gets some priority."

The town's other big industry, forestry, has also been hit hard by the fire.

While Batlow is still very much in the early stages of recovery, Batlow Fruit Company general manager Pernell Hartley said the fruit industry had little time to waste.

He said the immediate priority for the growers' co-operative was securing crops that had not been burnt and sorting out orchard infrastructure like sheds, irrigation equipment and netting, with birds already starting to damage fruit.

"[The fire] is a major blow for the industry," Mr Hartley said.

"We don't quite know until we can do full assessments, but it could be anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of total production that could be lost.

"It's quite imperative that we get on top of these issues because if we can't get on top of the problems created by the fire, it could be much worse than what the fire has already done in terms of damage.

"It will have a major impact to the local economy if we're not in a position to be able to supply fruit."

Devastated dairy industry works to keep milk flowing

Dairy farmers in the South Coast region are working to keep their farms running after bushfires damaged properties and infrastructure and interrupted supply chains.

After Bega Valley dairy farmers were forced to dump more than 800,000 litres of milk in the week after the New Year's Eve firestorm, the biggest agribusiness in the region is working hard to keep its supply lines flowing.

South Coast dairy farmers with then-agriculture minister David Littleproud in May 2019. Picture: Supplied

South Coast dairy farmers with then-agriculture minister David Littleproud in May 2019. Picture: Supplied

Dairy Connect chief executive Shaughn Morgan said an early estimate suggested 70,000 head of livestock had been lost, a number likely to grow.

He said the first priority was to provide any necessary support to affected dairy farmers.

"Those who have been so sadly affected by these bushfires, and their properties and dairy farms devastated, need to be given a chance to rebuild and be given support to ensure they remain on the land and continue to supply the fresh, nutritious milk," he said.

Mr Morgan said there were 30 directly affected dairy farms in the Bega Valley, where milk production had already declined due to commercial and drought pressures.

Bega Cheese acting chairman Max Roberts, who is a former dairy farmer, said that local suppliers had faced a tough week but of the 23 farms impacted, on Thursday only one or two were still unable to be reached by the company's tankers.

"The beef cattle herds in the area were hit harder than the dairy herds," he said.

"No dairies were affected and dairy herd losses were minimal. But the dairies still have to run every day and that product must be refrigerated."


He said that that loss of mains power through the region had meant that those farmers without generators had to dump their milk.

As Bega Cheese carries the responsibility for getting its tankers to the dairies for pick-up in a timely manner and with many roads inaccessible, Mr Roberts said the company would carry the financial responsibility for the loss of that product.

"We agreed to take it, we agreed to transport it, so we will carry that cost," he said.

In an announcement to the Australian Securities Exchange on Thursday, the company said it could lose up to 1.9 million litres of milk from a usual annual intake of 1 billion litres, with "no material overall impact" on operations.

During the week, Bega Cheese had arranged for a semi-trailer load of generators to be delivered to those farmers without power.

The Bega Cheese Factory. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The Bega Cheese Factory. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The company is also taking an active interest in how much feed is getting to local farmers.

Running on generated power is likely to become the new normal for local dairies as up to 600 power poles in the valley have to be replaced and this could take weeks, if not months.

The company directly and indirectly employs around 500 people in the Bega Valley.

Capitol Chilled Foods, which produces Canberra Milk, has continued to produce milk and has offered extended credit and invoice terms to affected business partners in fire-affected areas.

Where required, we have also arranged alternative delivery arrangements with our customers and distributors to get product to impacted areas.

Managing director Rob Niggl said the company had donated $10,000 to the Rural Fire Service.

"We will continue to work with our partners to identify ways we can further support. On behalf of all our team, I would like to extend our thanks to all those people who are bravely fighting the fires and to everyone who is working tirelessly to support impacted communities," he said.

South Coast oyster farmers suffer flow-on bushfire effects

Oyster stocks could suffer in the aftermath of the South Coast bushfires despite leases not being directly affected by fire in many areas.

Distribution stalled and farm gate sales ceased as major roads were closed due to bushfires and tourists were told not to visit the South Coast.

Oyster growers are also anticipating an increase in algal blooms due to ash in the water, which could cause a major oyster kill and affect supply.

Wonboyn Rock Oysters owner Caroline Henry said their leases were spared from being directly hit by fire, but there had been plenty of ash end up in the waterways.

Wonboyn, south of Eden, was impacted by the Border Fire on January 4, which had burned up the Far South Coast of NSW from Victoria. The town was isolated for days, and four homes were lost.

The glow of the Border Fire, as seen from Broadwater Oysters. Picture: Supplied

The glow of the Border Fire, as seen from Broadwater Oysters. Picture: Supplied

Ms Henry said they had "real concerns" about the ash debris and fine ash particles on the bottom of the water particularly in their area where the lake entrance was closed.

"We're hoping they can open the entrance for a short period of time so we get a tidal flush, a nice influx of fresh sea water," Ms Henry said.

"At the moment we're doing everything we can to keep them healthy."

She said they would normally sell 40 bags of 50 oysters a week - about 2000 oysters - but that had completely stalled.

Situated between Eden and Pambula, Broadwater Oysters co-owner Greg Carton said they were hoping their juvenile oysters wouldn't be impacted.

"It will be really interesting to see how much of our catchment does actually get burnt and then what happens after a major rain event when a lot of that gets washed in," Mr Carton said. "That's a time when we will potentially see an impact."

Mr Carton said their retail outlet would normally be doing between 500 to 1000 dozen oysters a day - so up to 12,000 oysters - but they were selling nothing.

"We're so lucky that our product is in the water as opposed to sheep and cattle," Mr Carton said, having seen the impact of the fires on other farmers.

An oyster being shucked. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

An oyster being shucked. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Australia's Oyster Coast chief executive Mark Allsopp has 45 oyster farmer shareholders on the South Coast, and the company distributes those oysters nationally and internationally.

Their central distribution hub in the Batemans Bay industrial estate had flames licking the walls but thankfully it was saved.

"We were very lucky," Mr Allsopp said.

"Not being able to get trucks through to Batemans Bay or the oyster farms has been the biggest impact."

He said the fires had caused problems for the past three to four weeks in various locations across the South Coast, but the biggest impacts would be the economic and the emotional tolls.

"A lot of the farmers have missed sales in the peak period, they really rely on the high-demand Christmas period to give themselves a nest egg and unfortunately some of them have missed out on that," Mr Allsopp said.

"The other side of it is the mental side, living almost in fear each day. That takes a toll. My team have struggled with that, it's been a really challenging time."

Vin-vin situation: buy a bottle, help a smoke-bound winery

Wine lovers have been urged to head to a winery to buy a bottle as tourist income slumps.

"The best thing people can do is buy a bottle of Canberra region wine if they want to support the industry," said Angus Barnes of the wine industry association for New South Wales and the ACT.

Angus Barnes of the NSW Wine Industry Association. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Angus Barnes of the NSW Wine Industry Association. Picture: Jamila Toderas

The output of the region's wineries was expected to be down substantially, cutting profits. Winemakers also fear smoke will taint their product, making it unsalable.

Visitor numbers are already being hit, and for small and medium wineries, that can be 40 per cent of income.

"The biggest impact that we are having is through tourism," the industry spokesman said.

"Our consumers have, possibly rightly, decided not to come to visit us in this time of fire and smoke.

"That has had a significant impact for small and medium winemakers who rely on the cellar door."

Mr Barnes was speaking after a crisis meeting at the Mount Majura Winery in Canberra of about 50 winery owners from across NSW and the ACT.

At the meeting, experts from the Australian Wine Research Industry advised on the impact of the smoke. They told the winemakers what the risks were as the summer progressed and what they could do to protect the vines and the product.

Ken Helm of Helm Wines Murrumbateman. Picture: Karleen Minney

Ken Helm of Helm Wines Murrumbateman. Picture: Karleen Minney

The crucial period for smoke damage will be from February onwards as the grapes become sweeter.

Smoke can taint a wine, according to Mount Majura winemaker Frank van de Loo. Drinkers might not know exactly what the problem was, he said, "but they would know that something had changed and see it for a negative".

Mr van de Loo said winemakers in the Canberra region would co-operate to get grapes and batches tested to ascertain whether smoke had tainted the product.

Winemakers spoke of unprecedented conditions. "Helm Wines of Murrumbateman have seen the driest winter, spring and early summer on record," Ken Helm said.

"Watering commenced in mid-September and has continued ever since with only about 50 millimetres of rain since February. The average is about 50 millimetres per month.

"This has or will tax the water resources of many vineyards and many growers are constantly watching forecasts for meaningful rain, with concerns mounting for the quality of the harvest.

"Record high December temperatures and the smoke have added to the grape-growers' worries."

"We pray for rain," Mr Barnes said.

This story How the bushfires are affecting our food producers first appeared on The Canberra Times.