Australia: Table grape downturn opens doors for diversification
December 21, 2016

A south west Queensland table grape grower is hoping a gamble on blueberries will pay dividends.

The past few years have been challenging for many table grape growers, including St George farmer Richard Lomman, and he hopes diversification will allow growers like himself to stay in horticulture.

"Table grapes have been, over the past few years, a bit of a basket case with oversupply and a lot of fruit coming down from up north," he said.

He said the amount of fruit in the north if they had a big year was enough to supply right through until the end of February.

"All those areas between Emerald and Mildura are at risk if they continue to have high yields and the supermarkets seem to enjoy buying from what we call 'supermarket farms' — It is just an average, minimum-spec product.

"The export market is really cranking up for the Mildura growers but unfortunately the varieties that are most popular over there aren't really suitable for the hotter climates," Mr Lomman said.

With an uncertain future in table grapes, Mr Lomman looked to other options in high value horticulture.

Blueberries are grown in southern states in Australia and increasingly in south east Queensland, with fresh fruit available between July and April.

But new varieties and growing techniques have opened up opportunities in alternative growing regions, including south west Queensland.

Mr Lomman said the move into blueberries had presented challenges but also opportunities.

"The industry is still pretty new even though it's expanding at an exponential rate.

"There are still a lot of new varieties and a lot of the breeders and the growers still haven't worked out how everything works so it really was a trial and it seem to be going good so far," he said.

It is hoped extending the growing region for blueberries will also extend the growing season for Australian fruit.

"We planted late last year so next year will be the acid test on timing," he said.

Mr Lomman said diversification into crops like blueberries could also lead to water savings.

"High value horticulture has got a big future in the St George area. We've got really secure water (for) horticulture.

"It's not always secure for the bigger growers, the cotton guys, but there's always some leftover for horticulture and there's a huge scope really," he said.

But he said there were still numerous risks for growers who chose to diversify.

"There are a lot of things we haven't grown here.

"We're assuming they will grow. But you've got to have someone who's got the capacity and the economic fat to be able to take a risk and with a lot of horticulture [crops] you need infrastructure.

"That's expensive, and if what you're planting doesn't work, what do you do with it.

"It is a difficult thing but we just have to start small, build and if people see it works, they'll jump on board," he said.