NZ vegetable growers under pressure

Updated: 21/06/2008

By HELEN MURDOCH – The Press | Friday, 20 June 2008

Gone are the days of Tasman’s traditional family market gardener.
They have followed the national trend and been replaced by commercial growers, the sweep of whose clean tilled paddocks and neat rows of vegetables covering hundreds of hectares are manicured by giant tractors.

But even the rationalised grower is under threat from today’s soaring labour, fertiliser, land and fuel costs, coupled with almost stagnant retail-chain returns. The outcome could soon be higher vegetable prices for consumers.

HortNZ senior business manager Ken Robertson said the loss of Tasman’s tobacco industry, many growers of which produced vegetables, the withdrawal of Talley’s from local vegetable processing and the development of supermarkets saw a downturn in production and the rationalisation of the region’s commercial produce growers.

But recent massive increases in fertiliser, fuel and labour were now putting even large growers under pressure. Robertson said commercial-grower returns had not changed in the last decade and some had even gone down.

“Some are finding it very hard to make ends meet and I suspect banks are looking at some parts of horticulture very closely,” Robertson said.

Climate change and the proposed emissions-trading scheme could effectively spell the end for many commercial growers, he said. “It will impose huge costs on the industry, because they are big users of diesel in the cultivation of crops and transport to markets. And basically the Government has ignored the fact that growers cannot pass these costs on because they are selling to retailers.”

Retailers’, and consumers’, expectations of year-round supplies of perfect cheap fruit and vegetables had done nothing to ease the industry’s increasing financial crises, he said.

He predicted these increased pressures would see the last of the smaller growers soon completely disappear, and some larger growers reassess their future.

Robertson said the national grower population was getting older and, apart from the big specialty businesses, many were starting to wonder where the future of the industry was going.

“If the situation in the marketplace does not change, consumers will start to see some real price rises in fruit and vegetables,” he said.

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