Queensland’s Strawberry Industry: More Strawesome than ever

In this episode we look at how Queensland’s strawberry growers are recovering after the 2018 tampering crisis. You will hear from growers who weathered the storm, and with the help of staff at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, are continuing to provide some of the best tasting strawberries in Australia. You will also meet the Queensland scientists helping growers breed new juicier, tastier and plumper strawberries all year round.

Turf ‘n’ Surf is a podcast that tells stories in Queensland’s farming, fishing, biosecurity and forestry sectors. It features interviews with people at the heart of the state’s primary industries and looks at how the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is helping to grow this important sector. Catch up on our other episodes.

The department uses a third party hosting platform called Whooshkaa for our podcasts. You may also access our podcasts directly through your favourite podcast app (ie Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts) Please note that the department does not control how any third party app or website will use the information that passes through their sites including in relation to any transfers of information outside Australia. You are advised to read the privacy statements of any third party platform, app or website you choose prior to access. To understand how Whooshkaa deals with your personal information you should read their privacy policy. To read how the department deals with your information online, read our privacy statement.

Meet our guests

David Carmichael David Carmichael
Jennifer Rowling Jennifer Rowling
Jodi Neal Jodi Neal

Transcript

HOST: Welcome to Turf’n’Surf’ – powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

In 2018, a small but dedicated group of Queensland farmers watched helplessly as tonnes of fruit they had painstakingly grown were dumped in paddocks to rot.

All because of a tiny piece of metal.

Hello I’m Fidelis Rego and in this episode we’ll look at how Queensland’s strawberry growers are recovering after the 2018 tampering crisis.

We’ll talk to the passionate farmers who persevered after hitting rock bottom and are now putting Queensland strawberries back on plates around the country and around the world.

We’ll also talk to the experts at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries who’ve been working behind the scenes to grow Queensland’s $160 million dollar strawberry industry.

Sounds of people picking strawberries… Does that look yummy Abby?
Yeah.
Can you say yummy?
That one’s green.
Oh no, not that one Chloe, not that one. See that’s green? And that’s red. Just the big red juicy ones. Can you get this one here?

HOST: Australians sure love their strawberries and based on sales there’s nothing better than one grown in Queensland.

There’s about 120 growers in Queensland and each year they produce more than 39-thousand tonnes of the fruit and export about 530 tonnes to countries like New Zealand and Singapore.

But in 2018 the industry was brought to its knees by a tampering crisis.

Needles were found in several pieces of the fruit.

Criminal charges have been laid over the matter but for growers like David Carmichael from the Sunshine Coast the impact was devastating.

David Carmichael: Well sales were hard at the beginning of it, and then, we found it exceptionally hard since the supermarkets stopped selling. We actually had to cut our farm down to about a 1/3 of our crop because there were no sales and what sales there were there was very, very minor. I actually had to send all my pickers home and one day they came to work and because there was no sale of food, we sent them all home and they couldn’t work for the day, there was no work for the day and everything that was going to be picked on that day never got picked again. And then the packers got the story that, when they came in to pack the next day that that could have been their last day as well because there was no market.

Host: What was going through your mind when you saw everything unfold in the media and the supermarket said, look we’re cutting down orders of strawberries and you had to cut back here on the farm. What were you thinking about your future?

David Carmichael: I wasn’t even thinking about the future at the time, I just couldn’t. I just, it was just what was happening at the time, I had, I could not even think about what the future was going to be, that was not in my mind at the time.

Host: Jennifer Rowling from the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association says it was a story she heard right around the state.

Jennifer Rowling: I guess some of the growers were more affected than others. Particularly those whose brands had been identified, you know, as being involved in the initial tempering incidents plus the ones that had been negatively affected by the NSW police claiming there were more brands down there affected so, for quite a few growers it was devastating because they did, they couldn’t see a way out so they stopped production. Their produce and their name had been affected, they were off the shelves in the supermarkets so they decided to you know pull up stumps early and that’s where you see the images of the strawberries being dumped. And it’s not just that it’s you know them having to put off all their workers as well. We have a really high volume of workers throughout this industry so to be have to put them off that was pretty devastating for them as well. But, for those who were able to push through and, and experience the turnaround in the public support really helped them to get through the other side of it and come out really positive about, you know, the future going forward.

Host: People that have seen the pictures of strawberries just dumped on mass, you know in the wake of the tampering scandal, there was a big marketing push and I remember there was that day in King George Square, where we encouraged people to eat strawberries, tell us about that and the money raised by the public there?

Jennifer Rowling: Yeah, so that was a huge event, I mean it was incredible to see that many people lining up to get those strawberry sundaes and an absolute, it’s so humbling to see the support for the farmers, you know. And I have no doubt that they were there to get a bloody good ice-cream too. You know, but that event raised you know, close to 50,000, over 50,000 dollars for the strawberry industry so what we have done with that money is putting it to use to sort of directly benefit the growers, themselves. So we have, one of our focusses have been on mental health to, so run a few initiatives to make sure that our growers are okay or they do have access to help if they need it. We have run a couple of workshops around mental health and we are rolling out a bit of a support package I guess. So if growers feel they do need a bit of assistance with that, they can get it. We are also running workshops on business, the business side of business, so helping look at things like, you know, we have had an industrial relations workshop so they are up to date on everything to do with industrial relations, business diversification. So, we think it is really important that growers look at their business as a whole and see what they can do with it to build their capacity and build their sustainability.

Host: While events like the Strawberry Sundae fundraiser in Brisbane’s King George Square helped save what could have been a disastrous season for growers, the state government also stepped in to protect the long-term future of the industry.

A million dollar funding package was created to restore consumer confidence in Queensland strawberries.

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Jason Keating was tasked with working with growers.

Jason Keating: Well what we did responding to the industry was to set up a back to market working group which consisted of representatives from the growers, stakeholders from the industry, from Growcom, Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, and we collaborated right up until now. So every month since the incident we have had teleconferences, catch ups and we have been monitoring the investment that the government made on the million-dollar recovery. So we have been putting in a number of projects using that money wisely to help with making the industry more resilient in the effect that it happens again and so there has been a number of supply chain investigative work looking at what happens in the paddock, the different touch points that the growers need to be aware of. How we can improve the efficiencies in the packing shed and also risks associated with the business, what messages need to be provided to media and also through the growers to better inform the community on these type of incidents in the future so there has been a lot of work done in that area. There has also been a lot of work done, on just working one on one with growers looking at their businesses, what they presently do, how they might adjust to a new way of working in their farm business and that might include initiatives like agri-tourism for example. So assisting them to look outside the box on their business. So there has been a lot of industry recovery work around that space. And that’s been invested through with Growcom in partnership we have been delivering those services. Obviously there has been growers who have been impacted financially through hardship because of the loss of money so we have also been working with those growers looking at ways to help them find and navigate solutions financially to get back into business. Yes so a range of things we have been working on with the industry since the tampering incident which we hope has put them in a better framework for this season.

Host: Jennifer Rowling from the Strawberry Growers Association says while there’s still considerable support for the industry, people also want to be reassured there won’t be a repeat of the tampering crisis.

Jennifer Rowling: So we have got people that have been tasked with this, the role of looking at the industry as a whole, looking at the supply chain, very much in-depth. Also taking into consideration what internationally you know happens in terms of traceability and you know food safety and that sort of thing and what we can possibly incorporate into our industry that may be of benefit to everyone.

Host: So what is the message to consumers now about that supply chain integrity, food safety after what happened last year? People might be saying oh you know what have you done to improve things?

Jennifer Rowling: we really want to reinforce the fact that our product, the strawberry industry and all of horticulture mind you, not just strawberries, it’s all fruit and vegetables have this incredibly safe, fresh produce processes you know across the board. We’ve never experienced anything like this before. We are hoping it doesn’t happen again but the consumer needs to be confident in those processes and the food safety strategies and processes that the farmers have in place now. You know it’s worked up until now so you know stay confident with it because it does work.

Host: The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Jason Keating says people can have faith the strawberries they buy are safe.

Jason Keating: For a grower they love their product, they grow it, they pack it, they take a lot of care for it. So every bit of confidence in the growers, every bit of confidence in the retail sector. It’s unfortunate that we live in a world now where sometimes incidents like this happen out of our control. But I think the community and the consumer can be 110 percent reassured that strawberries they will be eating this year will be high quality and safe.

Host: You’re listening to Turf’n’Surf’ – the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Since the tampering crisis, Queensland’s strawberry growers have been working hard to improve the fruit they sell to the public.

And they’re being helped by some of the smartest plant breeders in the country… like the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Jodi Neal.

In the past 10 years, Jodi’s team has developed 12 new strawberry varieties for commercial release.

DAF developed varieties made up 70 per cent of all strawberry plants planted in Queensland in 2018.

Jodi Neal: So what we do is we breed strawberries the way that plants have been bred for thousands of years. So we do controlled cross pollination so we cross pollinate parents. Two parent plants that might have traits of interest and then we grow out the offspring and see what is there, if there is anything that has the traits that makes it better than the existing strawberry variety. So we are looking to create strawberry varieties that are better for growers and better for consumers to enjoy.

Host: Consumers would be thinking well it’s just a red strawberry, surely there can’t be varieties of it, they’re just red and juicy but how many varieties do we grow in Queensland?

Jodi Neal: This is actually really interesting, there is actually, on the store shelves at any given time there is lots of different varieties so people don’t realise this because the punnets aren’t labelled with different varieties but just like apples and mangoes, lots of other fruits, there is actually lots of different strawberry varieties, they’re just all marketed under generic strawberries. So if you, you know find you know lots of different traits in there that each punnet is probably going to be a little bit different.

Host: So you say you are helping to breed varieties that the growers want, that the consumers want. What do growers look for in the strawberry that they are trying to grow?

Jodi Neal: From a grower point of view obviously you know they are very interested in the same things that consumers want because they want to produce strawberries that consumers are enjoying but from a particularly grower point of view they really need to have plants that have good disease resistances so that they don’t die out in the field and they don’t have to you know use as much input, sprays and things on them. They are also looking for plants that have good yield, so they produce a lot of fruit and then there is a whole bunch of traits that affects the cost of production. So for strawberries, because they are picked and packed into punnets by hand, there is no mechanical work there, the labour costs are actually a major, major issue for our farmers and so anything that we can breed into the plant and the fruit that makes it quicker to pick and quicker to pack actually makes a massive, massive difference to the growers. So things like having the fruit really nicely displayed out from the leaves so people, you know the pickers don’t have to hunt through the leaves and having larger berries so that it takes you know fewer pics to fill a punnet, that makes massive, massive differences to them.

Host: And I guess from a consumer point of view, what are they looking for? Is it simply the taste? It’s got to be juicy and sweet?

Jodi Neal: Yes so you know nice, nice juicy strawberries that have good flavour, looking at you know nice sugar acidity balance. They need to look good and they need to have good shelf life as well so that when you bring them home you know they will last a little while in the fridge for you. So they’re the main things that we’re looking at for consumers.

Host: Can you give us an idea of what consumers can expect from some of the varieties commercially released or planted and producing yield this year?

Jodi Neal: Yes so the major varieties that you will see in the shops this year is one of ours, Red Rhapsody and so it’s been around for a couple of years now but it’s really grown in how many plants have been planted by the growers. So Red Rhapsody is a slightly darker fruit, it’s sort of a nice rich red colour and that’s (ui) when it’s ready to eat and you know tastes its best so don’t be put off by the slightly darker colour, it tastes great and it has - for the grower it has good disease resistances and really good yield so the growers are really loving it too. We have a whole bunch of other varieties that are also out and being grown so probably the biggest are Sundrench and Scarlett Rose and Parisienne Kiss so there is a lot of you know whimsical names but they all have, sort of have slightly different traits and so they are grown for slightly different reasons but they taste good. Go eat strawberries.

Host: Back on his Sunshine Coast farm David Carmichael is busily preparing for another strawberry harvest, optimistic about his future.

David Carmichael: At the moment it’s still a little shaky and we have still got a long time to go in this season to have an idea of what’s going to happen. We need more local sales, we need the public and we need the local little fruit and veggie shops and restaurants and café’s, anyone who does anything to do with fruit and vegetables need to be supporting the industry and buying local. You know I mean I can understand some need to go to the wholesale but if you have got a farmer nearby pay him a visit.

Host: You have been listening to Turf’n’Srf, produced by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. For more information about this episode or to listen or subscribe head to our website daf.qld.gov.au/podcasts.