DECLARING WAR: The dangers posed by citrus canker were highlighted by the Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie when she visited Mildura on Monday to announce a further $264,000 was being spent on strengthening Australia’s biosecurity. The Minister is pictured ABOVE centre, with, left to right, Nutrano Produce Group Sunraysia general manager of operations, Tania Chapman, Member for Mallee Dr Anne Webster, Mildura Fruit Company general manager, Perry Hill, and Citrus Australia CEO, Nathan Hancock. 

By JOHN DOOLEY

PAYING a flying visit to Mildura on Monday, the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Senator Bridget McKenzie, announced that the Government was providing an additional $264,000 to strengthen the war against the spread of citrus canker.

Following a tour of the Mildura Fruit Company (MFC), the Minister said that part of growing agriculture more broadly across Australia into a $100billion industry meant that there needed to be a focus on a strong biosecurity system.

“The money will be used for a pilot project to ensure that those dogs you see sniffing bags at the airports are going to be trained to detect and monitor citrus canker in the north of our country, because if citrus canker is going to arrive on our shores, that is where it will likely take hold first and grow and prosper,” Minister McKenzie said.

“I’m excited about the potential of this project to be using our biosecurity labradors, to not just be looking for drugs, but also be looking for something that could be equally devastating to our communities in regional Australia and Sunraysia in particular, and that would be for citrus canker to take hold.

“Our government takes biosecurity seriously, and as Agriculture Minister, it’s the foundational pillar of a strong and prosperous agricultural industry. That’s why we’ve committed a total of $7.5million to the National Citrus Canker Response Program.

“We know that if something like foot and mouth got a hold in this country, it would cost $52billion over 10 years to deal with the outcomes.

“Biosecurity is a real risk, and can fundamentally undermine our entire agriculture industry, and therefore the entire economies of places like Mildura and Sunraysia should any of these pests and diseases get in.”

Citrus canker is a serious bacterial disease of commercial varieties of citrus, and relatives, caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas citri. The disease affects the leaves, twigs and fruit, causing leaves to drop, and fruit to fall to the ground before it ripens.

Citrus canker was detected in the Northern Territory in April 2018 after which a nationally co-ordinated response program was established to eradicate the disease.

“We know that we are a high-cost-production nation, and to get top dollar for our farmers and our processes and our regional communities we need to really be upholding our pest and disease-free status,” Minister McKenzie said.

“One of the risks to the citrus industry is canker, and should that take hold in this country, it would take a devastating toll on our citrus industry, our growers here locally in Mildura and right throughout the country.”

Member for Mallee Dr Anne Webster reiterated the Minister’s comments, saying the Murray Valley was the second largest citrus-growing district in Australia, comprising 6580 hectares of citrus production. 

“Preventing the spread of citrus canker is vital to protecting our valuable industry,” Dr Webster said.

Minister McKenzie was asked about the issue of seasonal worker shortages in Sunraysia, and the threat that posed to the viability of the industry. 

“As a Federal Government we are quite disturbed at the State Labor Government’s changes to labour hire regulations that is making it harder for local horticulturists, in particular, to access the workforce they need,” she said.

“At a Federal level we are doing everything we can. We have set up additional seasonal worker programs, additional relationships with our pacific neighbours to capitalise on that workforce and to set up DAMA’s (A Designated Area Migration Agreement).”

A DAMA is a formal agreement between the Australian Government and a regional, State or Territory authority, that provides access to more overseas workers than the standard skilled migration program. 

“I want to see the population grow out in rural and regional Australia, and I want more people, not just internationals, but also Australian workers, realising and recognising what a great career agriculture can be,” Minister McKenzie said.

By her own admission, the Minister expressed disappointment in the results of a pilot program established in 2017 to encourage people to work in the agriculture sector.

“The government set aside 3800 places for those in the jobactive network to actually get on farm and work in businesses like this (MFC), and participate in the workforce with no impact on their new start,” she said. “Earn as much money as you like – just come out here and help us pick our fruit, particularly at those critical times of harvest. 

“What we have seen unfortunately, is that just 404 Australians have taken that opportunity up despite having had, over that two years, 7600 opportunities – so I think there is some work to do there to actually encourage people out.” 

The Minister’s words echo those of many growers and contractors in the district, who will attest that most locals don’t want to work picking fruit or pruning vines. 

“Agriculture is an exciting 21st Century industry and I want young people in Australia to get excited about working in it, and that’s the domestic solution, and we are also going to need to supplement that with international solutions, such as backpacker visas, seasonal worker programs and alike,” she said. “So it’s not one solution, I’m interested in solving the problem and I’m working very hard to that end.”