Australian agriculture has been rocked by a series of extreme weather and natural disaster events over the last six months, several of which have been in the ‘one in 200 year’ category.
Not a quarter of Australia has been left untouched by recent climatic and weather events.
North-east Australia – Both severe tropical Cyclone Yasi (category 5) in early February and the record deluge in south-east Queensland in January followed a long period of above average La Nina associated rainfall over the entire region, which resulted in a series of record rainfalls and flooding events. Numerous coastal and tableland horticulture industries have been decimated, while inland broadacre crops have been flooded-out and livestock producers have battled to keep stock high, dry and safe.
North-west Australia – Monsoonal deluges and two tropical cyclones have occurred in the last three months over the north and north-west causing several localised floods of unprecedented proportions, again significantly impacting on plant and livestock short- and long-term industry production.
South-east Australia – Record winter rainfalls in 2010 through most of the lower Murray-Darling basin and neighbouring regions effectively ended the record-breaking 10-year drought, but the rain continued over summer and regular intense falls caused repeated flood-events, the latest being the recent storms over Victoria and southern NSW from ex-tropical cyclone Yasi. Many winter crops were wiped out and most that were able to be harvested were downgraded to lower quality grades. The entire region is now – unusually for this time of year – verdant.
South-west Australia – In stark contrast to other regions, WA’s sheep/wheat zone has suffered under a year of record low rainfall. Broadacre winter crop failures reduced state-wide yields by millions of tonnes, and widespread de-stocking has occurred as farmers simply ran out of water.
According to Treasury estimates, Yasi may have wiped out around $700 million in rural production, $200 million in non-rural exports due to temporary coal terminal closures, and about $100 million in tourism activity.
Specific immediate rural industry losses include more than $400 million of bananas, $10 million of avocados, up to $9 million of pawpaws, and $500 million has been wiped off the $2.5 billion sugar industry. The crop-loss bill from the floods in Queensland’s south-east has been put at $225 million.
More than 75 per cent of Australia’s banana crop was destroyed by Yasi, with the Cardwell, Tully and Innisfail districts taking the bulk of the damage. Banana supplies are expected to remain low for at least another five months. The chairman of the Australian Banana Growers Council, Cameron MacKay, who has a farm at Tully, expected supplies to be disrupted for four months, while a return to full production could take up to a year.
”Many growers are facing massive repair costs; the industry is facing a huge financial and personal struggle to return production to its previous levels of more than 450,000 cartons per week.”
Cowley banana farmer Mark Nucifora says at least 25 per cent of the bunch trees on his 140-acre property have fallen over and 10 per cent of his other trees snapped in some place.
Chief Executive Officer of Avocados Australia, Antony Allen, said it is estimated that around 10 to 20 per cent of the crop was on the ground across the North Queensland region and the majority of those growers had planned to start picking their fruit in two weeks time. “We ask that Australian consumers and retailers understand that some of the fruit from North Queensland will have scratches and wind marks on the outside skin, but these marks have no impact on the flesh.”
Mandarin supplies are not expected to be affected. CEO of Citrus Australia, Judith Damiani, said that while the majority of Australian mandarins were grown in flooded central Queensland, most growers had escaped damage. “About three quarters of Queensland’s commercial mandarin crop is grown in the Gayndah, Mundubbera and Emerald regions, however; few crops in the region suffered the major impacts we feared.”
Packenham (VIC) district potato farmer Bernard Dillon lost his entire 40ha crop in the floods costing more than $500,000. “It’s a total wipeout, it can’t be saved. And it’s too late in the year to replant, it’s just impossible to salvage anything from this.” Mr Dillon, who also runs a dairy, is now concentrating on his 170 cows. “We almost lost them as well, but we managed to get them to safety. They’re all we have left for the time being.”
With all the wet and humid weather conditions, most vineyards have experienced some form of disease outbreak and damage, with some vineyards hit with a ‘triple disease whammy’ where downy mildew, botrytis and powdery mildew developed together.
In the lead-up to the pome and stone fruit harvest period, many growers have had to depend on fungicides to keep diseases at bay. Michael Crisera, fruit industry development officer from Fruit Growers Victoria Ltd, said disease and weather damage had affected fruit. “Black spot is quite common in Victorian orchards, initially caused by primary infections in spring, and recent rains have got the disease going again. Growers have to spend more money on sprays and hail damage had also had an effect on fruit appearance.” He said brown rot had also caused crop losses in peaches, nectarines and apricots.
Livestock have not been spared. Sheep producers are battling flystrike waves and worm control specialists have issued warnings for graziers that there are reports of extremely high, even dangerous, internal parasite levels in sheep from Tasmania right through to western Queensland, and graziers are now experiencing significant production losses. Other warnings have been issued for production risks, including: footrot, mastitis, insect-borne diseases and consumption of newly-introduced poisonous plants. Numerous stock perished in the Queensland tempest.
The eastern grains industry achieved a record harvest in terms of quantity. However, widespread quality downgrades occurred for most grain and pulse crops and high levels of foliar diseases were evident. Storage of high-moisture grain can precipitate fungal attack, which causes further downgrading and possible toxicity risks.
In Western Australia’s southern wheat/sheep zone, drought significantly reduced carrying capacity and crop yields, and graziers have been urged to monitor water supplies for signs of salinity – as salt in high quantities can be poisonous. Stock are also very susceptible to rapid changes in salinity.