The fruits of decades of labour

THE Brown family run a diverse operation at Sassafras where they have been farming for decades. As a well as operating a large cropping and livestock operation, the family are one of the state’s largest apple growers.

When they originally bought the orchard about 20 years ago, it had 50ha of apples. Since then, they have expanded the orchard to about 100ha and they now also grow blueberries.

John Brown has been farming on the family property all his life and has seen it grow significantly. He said this year’s blueberry season, which had just wrapped up, had been one of their shortest ever, with picking only lasting about 12 days instead of the usual three weeks.

A shortage of labour at the orchard has been a major issue since the Covid pandemic and Mr Brown said while they had about 50 staff this year, they will need about 150 once the apple season gets into full swing.

Mr Brown said the impacts of the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to implement the backpacker tax a few years ago were still being felt.

“We’re getting a trickle of backpackers now, but nothing like we used to get,” he said. “A lot of the backpackers don’t realise that don’t have to pay tax from the first dollar they earn so that needs clearing up. They need to run a campaign letting the backpackers know that they won’t be taxed straight away as soon as they start earning money, they get the first $18,000 tax free. I think that would do a lot to help.”

Their apples are sold all over the country and Mr Brown said they were continuing to expand and a new area they planted in August should start producing in about two years. As well as running the orchard, the family grow a wide range of crops including peas, beans, onions, potatoes and poppies.

They also run about 1000 cross-bred lambs which they fatten on farm. Mr Brown said while they have been long-time vegetable growers, increasing input costs and the unwillingness of the processing companies to significantly increase prices was putting pressure on growers and the industry.

“Twenty-two years ago, we were receiving 62c kilogram for slicing beans and now we’re a long way less than 50c. Last year it was 37 cents,” he said. “Labour costs have doubled, fertiliser, seed and diesel costs have all got dearer and our price has come back 30 per cent in those 30 years. Someone is getting $6 a kilogram to sell it and put it in a bag, so that’s the big problem.”

Mr Brown said the costs of investing in farmland combined with low vegetable prices were issues preventing young people from getting into farming.

“It’s not sustainable and if they don’t start doing more to make sure farmers are making decent returns, we just won’t see any young farmers coming in,” he said.

“If the prices are right, farmers will grow the crops, but if they’re not making a good amount out of them, they won’t. It’s pretty simple.”