IN DEPTH

'It's affected all of us': How coronavirus is impacting agriculture

Farmer: Carpendeit's Carlie Barry. Picture: Mark Witte
Farmer: Carpendeit's Carlie Barry. Picture: Mark Witte

THE impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been wide and varying for the agricultural sector.

Those who supply to restaurants and exporters have had their livelihoods decimated, while others in sectors like dairying are continuing business relatively unscathed.

in the western Victorian township of Derrinallum, sheep and crop farmer Will Mercer said a big concern for his business was getting the fertilisers and chemicals in time for this year's sowing.

Canola at Lake Bolac.

Canola at Lake Bolac.

With all of the products coming offshore from countries like China, many of them sat for weeks in quarantine at Melbourne docks.

Mr Mercer's crops include canola, fava bean, wheat, clover, rye and hay.

If not sown in time it would impact future seasons to come.

"This is the time of year where you need those fertilisers and chemicals to sow and crop and there's been a lot of heightened pressure and unknowns," he said.

"We were really worried about getting all the products here with everything held up by a lack of supply. These are things ordered six months in advance

"Everyone's on edge and it's hard, especially in isolation where there's no social side of things."

He now has around 80 per cent of the products needed to sow, with a few things still held up.

Mr Mercer has 1600 hectares in Derrinallum and leases another 600 hectares. He also has around 3000 ewes and said that aspect of his business was largely unaffected but friends in export pork and beef were struggling.

"The sheep side of things are good, we've been able to sell our proteins, there's quite a normal market need for meat I think because I think protein and food is classed as essential," he said.

"I think even though we grow more than what the nation eats at the moment the agricultural industry is keeping the wheels turning in this country. If the ag sector fell over we'd be in strife.

If the agriculture sector fell over we'd be in strife.

Will Mercer

"Something like this is a black swan event and there are so many unknowns. I hope all efforts are put in to keep the agricultural wheels spinning."

Mr Mercer said he felt lucky to be in the country and while they are on track for this season, he fears how the sector will be impacted in the future.

"It is going to affect all of us in one way or another, moving forward in to the recovery period it's going to change a lot of things," he said.

"For one there's too much reliance on imports in this country. Moving forward I hope we can see more dependence on Australian production."

Owen and Carlie Barry run a dairy and paddock-to-plate business in Carpendeit, milking up to 600 cows on 1300 leased acres over two farms at Carpendeit and Weerite in the state's south-west.

The young first generation farmers and parents to three young girls said their focus on sustainable and ethical farming practices has left their business relatively unscathed in the coronavirus pandemic.

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with daughter Tilly, 10 months. Picture: Mark Witte

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with daughter Tilly, 10 months. Picture: Mark Witte

"The beef side of things has gone insane, we've had lots of enquires and have run out of cattle and won't have anymore until about November because the demand was so high," said Carlie Barry.

"We sell in bulk direct to the customer's door, we don't rely on farmer's markets and restaurants so luckily we haven't been affected.

"As for the dairy we are waiting to see what the milk prices do on July 1. At the moment grain prices are the biggest impact on business because they're still really high. Prices went up 18 months ago on the back of the export price for grain and the drought.

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry's Jersey cows. Picture: Mark Witte

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry's Jersey cows. Picture: Mark Witte

"Depending on what this year's season will be like the prices of grain might drop again next harvest, but we've still got eight months of pain ahead.

"It's almost double what the average price would be, but you can't stop feeding the cows.

"That's why we're hoping the milk price stays fairly similar, at the moment we're just breaking even but if it drops further I can see a lot of farmers walking out."

Ms Barry said some of the government supports offered to farmers to offset the impact of COVID-19 on their livelihoods was too little too late.

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with some of their Jersey cows. Picture: Mark Witte

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with some of their Jersey cows. Picture: Mark Witte

"There's more support out there now than what was available two years ago when we were at the height of the drought, for example we're able to access our super now where you couldn't previously," she said.

"There was hardly any support out there for farmers through drought and the support should have been there years ago, not now.

"I see the government has created a special COVID-19 agricultural taskforce, but where were they when 25 per cent of dairy farmers exited the industry two years ago?

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with some of their paddock-to-plate produce. Picture: Mark Witte

Carpendeit's Carlie Barry with some of their paddock-to-plate produce. Picture: Mark Witte

"Farmers have been doing it tough for five years and now that other businesses are feeling what we've felt for the last five years, now people are listening."

She said there were still more the government could be doing to ensure the agriculture sector pulls through this pandemic.

"Some of the employee subsidies we looked at our staff are not eligible for because they've been employed for less than 12 months, perhaps the government could look at relaxing some of those restrictions for those in the agricultural sector," she said.

Port Campbell farmer Phillip Younis runs his own cattle on his 600-acre property and agists cattle.

Phillip Younis at his Port Campbell property. Picture: Morgan Hancock

Phillip Younis at his Port Campbell property. Picture: Morgan Hancock

He said the uncertainty between China-Australian relations is putting stress on a lot of farmers.

"If China threaten to kill our trade who knows what we'll do, the animals here have lost a lot of value because of that and the restaurant trade.

"People aren't buying because they're not selling, the implications for the agricultural sector are yet to be realised.

"The ag sector is a longer term picture, it's someone putting an order in 12 months ahead and the impacts are longer term.

"When you've got animals running around in a paddock that can't be sold for up to eight months who knows what's going to happen. They still have to be fed, you still need fertilisers and the rest of it.

"For farmers you can'y stop and change when the cows are calving in six months time, they're going to calve and they're going to need to feed. You can't tell them to hang on."

Phillip Younis at his Port Campbell farm with his dog, Max. Picture: Morgan Hancock

Phillip Younis at his Port Campbell farm with his dog, Max. Picture: Morgan Hancock

Mr Younis also feels the industry has been let down by the government.

"They've never really got on board helping the sector, I don't see why they would start now," he said.

"They're throwing $60 million at mental health, I'd happily opt out of my claim if it meant I get the cash in my hand to alleviate the situation before I get to having mental health problems.

"It's a cycle and it's accepting that people have mental health issues and will have mental health issues, but often that is brought on by circumstances that can be addressed before it happens.

"My restaurant is now making zero dollars, yet my mortgage is rolling in, give me the money for my mental health problems so I can pay my mortgage."

Schulz Organic Dairy principal Simon Schulz has abided by all coronavirus regulations and has reworked his set up at Timboon.

"Things have certainly changed," he said.

Schulz Organic Dairy principal Simon Schulz.

Schulz Organic Dairy principal Simon Schulz.

"We had to close our cellar which meant we had to let some people go.

"Other parts of our business are doing strongly and we have been able to relocate people.

"Overall, things are good, we are still kicking our goals."

Mr Schulz has seen his stockists turning to different methods to sustain business.

"A lot of restaurants and cafes have had to close but many people are being innovative and surviving," he said.

"The people we choose to work with are the best and we are lucky in that regard because they're finding a way through.

"We've had two of the best restaurants in Australia buy from us to use our product in things like baking bread.

"We have also been very well supported by our local cafes."

The Schulz family has been dairy farming for 35 years and despite having new products on the market, their work ethic is instilled through its workers and the business.

"Our cleaning method of returned glass bottles has always been rigorous and we're working on ramping it up even more as our people prefer not to use single-use plastic," Mr Schulz said.

"The community is still supporting us on our glass journey.

"It's disappointing to see cafes have been forced to use takeaway only cups but we understand.

"When it comes to supporting local business again, I have great faith our community will get behind their own."

Last week the state government announced an increase to the drought relief program by $5000, allowing farmers to access up to $10,000 for farm business planning and drought infrastructure investments.

The warning comes from China's ambassador to Australia, Jingye Cheng, who said the consumption of other agricultural commodities such as wine could also be reduced in addition to less Chinese students and tourists coming to Australia.

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Although disrupted by COVID-19 in 2020, Meat and Livestock Australia data shows 206,000 tonnes of beef valued at $1.66 billion was sent to China in 2019. The was also 126,000t of sheepmeat worth $838 million imported in the same period.

Based on rising incomes and continued urbanisation, MLA says beef consumption is expected to rise from 6.7kg/person in 2017 to 8.1kg in 2027.

In the past two years Australian red meat sales have been in part been driven the devastation of the Chinese pig herd because of African swine fever.

The highly-contagious hemorrhagic virus devastated pig populations in 2018-19, resulting in major rises in the cost of pork, far and away the most popular meat in China.

The Morrison government is maintaining its call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. It also wants changes to the World Health Organisation over its handling of the pandemic.

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This story 'It's affected all of us': How coronavirus is impacting agriculture first appeared on The Standard.