By VINNIE RODI

WITH drought and high water prices crippling some of the region’s dried fruit growers, Sunraysia’s three major processors have moved to offer price increases to help ease the financial pressure on producers.

Murray River Organics (MRO) recently announced a $200 per tonne increase in prices for third-party dried fruit as part of its ‘Sunraysia Growers Water Support Package,’ while Australian Premium Dried Fruits and Sunbeam has offered similar increases on certain varieties.

MRO chief executive, Valentina Tripp, said that given the severe drought conditions in Mildura, and the increasing price of temporary water, MRO “wanted to provide Sunraysia growers with certainty for the coming season.”

“We recognise the impact that the ongoing drought and water is having on growers in Mildura, and as significant growers ourselves, we understand the issues they are facing,” she said.

“As a result, at this critical time, we have decided to initially offer up to $200 per tonne on top of last year’s pricing increases to source irrigation water for key in-demand varieties. 

“We believe this will deliver much-needed confidence to our growers.”

The price increases are part of the ‘Growing Together’ program, with the intake of third-party grower dried fruit reaching 1240 tonnes in 2019 – an increase of 15 percent on 2018.

Dried Fruits Australia chair, Mark King, described the move as a fantastic initiative.

“It’s great that all three major processors have recognised the burden facing growers, and this is a wonderful initiative to help alleviate some of the pain and stress,” he said.

“We know that water prices are ridiculously high at the moment, and we know that those prices won’t be going backwards anytime soon.

“While there will still be pain for growers, and they will still be required to make some tough decisions, this will help ease the pain.”

Mr King once again called on the region’s dried fruit growers to “seriously sit-down and do their sums”.

“Now is the time to make some serious business decisions, and seriously consider how you are going to use your water,” he said. 

“It might be time for some growers to make the call on whether they invest in varieties that are going to offer the best returns.”

Murray Valley Winegrowers (MVW) chair, Peter Crisp, ABOVE, also praised the dried fruit industry for the move, and encouraged local wineries to follow suit.

“If dried fruit processors can do it, than so should wineries,” he said.

Mr Crisp said that MWV was forecasting a decline in tonnage for the 2019/20 season.

“This is due to the pressure that high temporary water prices are placing on growers,” he said. “That stress will increase as time goes on unless the wineries act to give growers some incentive to look after the coming crops.”

Mr Crisp said wineries had “a number of options available” to aid local growers, whether that be improved prices per tonne, or a payment for growers based on water.

“This could include an early payment to help growers secure the water needed,” he said. “Wineries will know what’s best for them, and I encourage them to talk to their growers to work out the best way forward.

“There are a number of options open to wineries – the simple thing would be to offer prices significantly above last year’s prices to give growers the confidence to finish their crops.”

Meanwhile, an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into the operation of water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin has been held in Mildura this week.

Seeking feedback from industry and the general public, the inquiry, as reported in the Mildura Weekly last week, will see the ACCC use its compulsory information-gathering powers to obtain “a detailed picture” of trading activity in water markets since 2012.

The ACCC will provide the Federal Treasurer with an interim report on the inquiry by May 31, 2020, and complete the inquiry and provide a report to the Treasurer by November 30, 2020.

Submissions can be made via the ACCC Consultation Hub, or emailed to waterinquiry@accc.gov.au. Submissions close on November 29.