Fruit Supplies Eroded By New Environmental Law
'Fruit prices on rise — Growers plagued by bats' (The Sunday Mail, 21/12/2008)

A PLAGUE of flying foxes has almost ruined Queensland's stone fruit crop, pushing up supermarket prices and threatening to force some growers out of business. Up to half the plums, peaches and nectarines produced in the Granite Belt region around Stanthorpe — worth more than $4 million — have been destroyed.

Shortages mean that fruit prices in the shops, which normally fall in late summer, are likely to keep rising.

The region's apple growers fear their soon-to-be harvested $20 million crop is also in jeopardy.

Farmers blame the infestation of flying foxes on a ban on shooting the creatures, imposed in May by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Previously, growers were able to protect their crops by eliminating the early-arriving 'scout' bats, which stopped fruit bats settling in the orchards," said Mark Panitz, chief advocate with the peak horticulture group Growcom.

Stanthorpe growers faced ruin as a result of the decision to drop the scheme without a transition period, he said. Instead, farmers have been trying to scare the flying foxes off with lights — to little effect. Ian Mungall, who has lost 45 per cent of his crop, said:

"I've got hail netting but it's not stopping the flying foxes. I went for three weeks working all day, coming in for a feed and an hour's sleep in the chair and then going out all night chasing them off."

He said the loss of sales could send some growers to the wall. The wider community was affected too, he said.

"Fewer people are being employed to pick and work in packing sheds. This area is reliant on intinerant labour and backpackers and, without the work, retailers are not getting the business."

The growers are calling for a financial assistance package from the State Government. But Primary Industries and Fisheries Minister Tim Mulherin says crop damage from native animals did not qualify as a natural disaster under the guidelines.

Mr Mungall said:

"Within 24 hours of the storms in Brisbane recently, the Government were clambering over each other to hand out money to people who still had a job to go to on the Monday and could claim on their insurance. This is our only means of livelihood. We need help."

The Minister said the department's farm financial counselling service in Warwick could help growers assess their needs and assist in negotiations with their financial institutions. The Commonwealth's transitional income support scheme could provide short-term support for producers in financial difficulty, he said.