By VINNIE RODI

NEWLY-appointed Australian Table Grape Association (ATGA) Board Chairman, John Argiro, has called on local growers to do more in the battle against fruit fly.

A long-time industry advocate and Merbein-based table grape grower, Mr Argiro, PICTURED, was elected ATGA Chairman recently after previously serving as Deputy Chair from January 2013 to December 2016, and as an Executive Delegate from January 2008 to December 2012.

He said that as it currently stands, only about 50 percent of Sunraysia’s table grape growers were actively contributing to a fruit fly levy designed to raise appropriate funds to combat the insidious pest.

The levy – a $3 payment per tonne of fruit picked – is in place across all major horticulture industries, including table grapes, citrus and stone fruit.

Funds raised through the levy are combined with government funds to undertake projects that manage  fruit fly, and help to support local food-growing industries.

“Fruit fly is still a major issue, with roughly $1.8billion of produce grown in the Greater Sunraysia Pest Free Area each year alone,” Mr Argiro said.

“As an industry it is disappointing that we are not pulling our weight contributing to this levy.

“In my opinion, growers need to see that on a grand scale, $3 per tonne – or 3c a kilogram – is not a lot to maintain a pest-free status.”

Mr Arigo said it was also time for the Victorian Government to begin enforcing the levy to ensure compliance.

“If it’s a compulsory levy, then it’s time for the State to start enforcing it,” he said. “There may need to be consequences for those growers who are choosing not to pay.

“It’s not fair on those growers who are doing the right thing.”

Mr Argiro said the battle against fruit fly was even more important as Sunraysia table grape growers begin what is shaping up to be a very productive season.

“All roads are pointing to a great season,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to a grower who isn’t happy with how their crop is looking.”

Mr Argiro, who is also the current president of the Sunraysia Table Grape Association, brings a wealth of knowledge to his new national role.

“It’s an exciting time for the industry, and I believe in the next five years we’ll see significant development and redevelopment with new plantings, the likes of which we are now seeing in the Sunraysia region and in places like Alice Springs,” he said.

“In recent years the industry has seen an increase in exports to Japan, South Korea and China, which have been instrumental in increasing Australia’s market share.

“In 2011 the industry exported 30,000 tonnes of grapes, worth $80million. In 2017 the industry exported 110,000 tonnes, worth $377million.

“That’s an increase of more than 300 percent.”

Mr Argiro said that the recent announcement of changes to the China protocol will also open new export markets in northern China.

“The ATGA is predicating an increase of 20,000 tonnes to China in the next two to three years,” he said. “This has the potential to be worth an extra $100million to the industry.

“Add that to the $377million the industry is already worth, we’re looking at close to half a billion dollars worth of exports.

“I’ve been in the industry for more than 30 years, and in that time I’ve seen enormous growth and change, but this really is a game-changer.

“I truly believe our table grapes are the best in the world. I want the industry to continue to be successful and grow, and I believe together we can achieve this.”

Mr Argiro said there were several priorities facing the table grape industry.

“I’m keen to keep championing new market access opportunities, the implementation of standardised maturity testing and making sure us older growers are doing all we can to ensure that as an industry, we’ve got a succession plan in place,” he said.

Mr Argiro said he would also like to see greater collaboration between growers.

“I’m keen to see growers come together as a collective and collaborate with Hort Innovation to seek and determine better outcomes for our industry,” he said.

Mr Argiro was also quick to acknowledge the past work of outgoing Chairman Richard Lommon.

“I need to thank Richard for all the outstanding work he has done in serving the industry and our interests over the last five years,” he said. “I’d also like to welcome and congratulate those that are new to the board and those that were re-elected.

“I look forward to working with them all.”