ACT News


Perfect produce, shrinking market: it's a growing trend

Keith Harrison remembers his family's stone fruit orchard - 20,000 trees in wide rows - spreading out in the Araluen valley to the gum tree-covered mountains in the distance.

Today only 3000 trees remain, the receding line indicative of Australia's volatile food production.

His son Ken drives a tractor through the night, raking lucerne hay where many of the district's famous white peaches once swelled with juice every summer.

Keith's great grandfather Henry was the first Harrison to arrive in the valley east of Braidwood, in 1853, with a young Irish wife. They had walked all the way from Parramatta in search of gold. Subsequent generations filled a semi-trailer a day with fruit for the Flemington Markets, until five years ago.

That's when Ken began ripping out trees and selling his remaining fruit directly to customers at Canberra's Capital Region Farmers Market.

A spokesman for the Rotary Club of Hall, which runs the markets every Saturday, said the Harrisons' story was all too familiar. ''A Leeton citrus producer said to me: 'If I didn't have these markets, I'd be off the farm and out of business','' Tony Howard said.


''He has no market for citrus. With overseas produce coming in, they can't unload their stuff in Flemington. There's just no money in it for them.

''We have people coming, would you believe, from Renmark. A 12-hour drive every Saturday because they can sell their produce here. They cannot get a decent margin for their product elsewhere.''

When the Rosella brand went into receivership, the national body representing vegetable growers said several other prominent vegetable growing and processing operations in Australia had closed over the past 18 months.

AUSVEG's Hugh Gurney said Australia's food was grown and processed to the highest quality and safety standards of anywhere in the world. ''That is part of the reason it is more expensive to grow it, the cost of production is higher.''

In good seasons, 280 stall holders fill Saturday's markets at Exhibition Park in Canberra. A waiting list is confined to 50, otherwise it would get out of hand.

When their peaches and nectarines ripen, Ken Harrison, his wife, Tracey, and children, Kaitlyn and Troy, rise at 3am each Saturday to be there to sell to people waiting in queues. On Sunday, they drive to the Southside Farmers Markets at Woden, putting up with their aching tiredness to keep control of their product.

''We just weren't getting enough money out of Flemington,'' Mr Harrison said. ''If you are sending it to Flemington you have to have enough for your agent to deal with the chain stores.''

Supermarkets dictate trading terms, insisting they fill huge bins, rather than small boxes, with fruit.

Troy is beginning to sell tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, squash and potatoes. Ken believes Troy's generation will be either boutique or really big producers, while Australians will fret over their future food supply.