FRESH IDEAS: New president of the Sunraysia Table Grape Growers Association Dominic Sergi expects this year’s table grape harvest to yield a good result for his industry. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

THERE’S a fresh face at the helm of the Sunraysia Table Grape Growers Association (STGGA), with Sunnycliffs grower Dominic Sergi taking on the role of president, a position previously held by fellow table grape grower, John Argiro.

Mr Sergi, 33, took over the reins in September last year, joined by another 10 young growers who have taken up positions on the committee, injecting fresh ideas into the organisation.

“It’s a fresh team, and as new committee members, the younger growers will learn the ropes and benefit from the experience imparted by current and retiring members,” he said.

Mr Sergi said that despite the issues surrounding water and labour, he expects the industry in our region to have a very good season, with yields and prices expected to hold up well. 

“Pricing shouldn’t be too much different to last season, and volume should be on par with last year – but the water issue is killing us,” Mr Sergi said.

“The heat that we have had early in the season means we have been forced to use more water than you otherwise would. When you get a few extremely hot days in a row, you really need to keep pumping it on, otherwise the vines really suffer.”

Mr Sergi, whose family property has 40 hectares (100 acres) of table grapes in production, said the combination of a reduced water allocation, and excessive cost, is biting into grower’s profits. 

“It’s the cream off-the-top that we could be making, but we’re having to spend on water,” he said. “On those hot days you don’t have a choice. You can’t skimp on water, because it will cost you too much in the long run.”

The other concern for the industry is the availability of a workforce to harvest crops, something Mr Sergi said will be a wait and see game. 

“It’s hard to tell at this stage of the season what it will be like, but when it really kicks off in another four weeks, that will be the test to see what labour is around,” he said.

“We do have some Pacific Islanders coming to the region, which takes a bit of the pressure off. We use a contractor and we also source some from the Islander Program and other sources. The hard part is that you can’t just throw anyone in there and expect the fruit to end up in a box – that’s not how it works – they need to be trained properly before they start.” 

While it’s early days for the table grape harvest, which will span January to May, Mr Sergi said some growers had commenced picking. 

“It has started for a few people. Variety and location influences the timing, and Merbein always seems to be a little bit earlier than other areas, and in fact, a few started the day after Boxing Day,” he said.

In 2017, the Australian Table Grape Association predicated the growth in table grape exports – to China in particular – had the potential to add an extra $100million to the industry, which would see it worth close to half-a-billion-dollars in exports, and it’s on track to achieve that target.

Mr Sergi, who manages the ‘Sergi Fresh’ Sunnycliffs operations, is relishing his new role with the STGGA, and said he is looking forward to the period ahead, citing the two current issues facing his industry as the major challenges.

“Mainly water and labour. They’re the issues that we don’t really have control over,” he said. “Fruit Fly is always there, but we can control that to an extent – we can spray and we can put measures in place to minimise the impact to us.

“As far as labour goes we can only access what’s there – that’s the hard part. I think there are probably a few people out there trying to get around the issue, because there just isn’t the legal workforce out there. 

“That’s the problem – it’s just not physically there. If it was there, there wouldn’t be an issue.” 

Mr Sergi said that once the peak of the season arrives, people coming in under the new labour programs will be inadequate. 

“It will barely be enough to take on the new plantings, let alone existing ones,” he said. “The workforce isn’t keeping pace with what is being put in the ground.”