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Apple prices have barely risen in decades so these farmers have pulled up their trees and moved on

Apples are a lunch box staple, and they may keep the doctor away, but farmers are not making money growing them at the moment. 

New data from a NSW Farmers Association survey has revealed retail fruit prices have barely changed in two decades, and producers were being forced out of the industry.

The number of orchardists in what were once the apple-growing heartlands of Australia has plummeted since 2000, with population of growers halved, according to the data.

The number of apple farmers in the Orange region of New South Wales town has fallen from more than 200 to a dozen, while near Harcourt in Victoria the small community of Elphinstone used to have 23 farming families but now only a few remain.

In Victoria’s Yarra Valley, apple grower Kevin Sanders said in some cases farmers were not making any profit on apples sold to supermarkets.

Producers placed the blame on large supermarkets that had only increased retail prices by 50 cents a kilogram in the past 20 years.

The average price of apples for producers has risen by less than $1 since 2002.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole )

Apple varieties at major supermarkets are being sold at between $4 to $7 a kilo, making them popular with shoppers, and retail data shows that 84 per cent of Australian households regularly buy the crunchy fruit.

But farmers aren’t feeling the love.

“We are probably making somewhere around $2.50 to $2.70 per kilo. The rest is the retail margin,” Mr Sanders said.

“If it costs us $2.50 to grow the fruit and we are selling them at $3, we get a 50c margin for 18 months of work.

“The public sees the price go up and wrongly assumes the growers are getting more money, but the money isn’t flowing through to the growers.”

Apple trees ripped out

A middle aged man standing in front of dead trees

Michael Cunial removed more than 80 hectares of apple trees on his property. (ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Michael Cunial, a third-generation apple producer near Orange in the NSW Central West, used to tend to more than 80 hectares of apple trees, but the financial pressures of the sector have become too much.

“The industry has slowly declined as far as making money out of apples. We have had huge added costs with electricity bills, labour, and chemicals,” he said.

“Everything has gone up except for our prices and the growers are wearing it.

“It has got to a point where we just didn’t make money.”

Major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths defended their role in the decline of the industry.

A close up shot of apples in a supermarket

Producers say the revenue they make from selling apples has only slightly increased in years.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Woolworths said it did not have visibility of growers’ cost of production or profit margins.

“We pay the market price for fresh produce and we’re currently paying our apple suppliers more for their fruit than 12 months ago,” it said.

Coles said the price of their fruit reflected “the cost of the raw ingredients we pay our suppliers [for]” along with other factors such as “processing, transport, labour, and other costs associated with getting a product ready”.

A wide shot of cut down trees.

Mr Cunial’s will focus on producing other fruits after removing his apple trees.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Mr Cunial said it was challenging to remove trees and move away from the fruit.

“Sentimentally it is really sad, because we have photos of my grandfather starting the orchard. There were huge amounts of work that went into it,” he said.

“But to have that relief off your shoulders, of all the added costs and the uncertainty around what was going to happen in the future, we couldn’t keep chucking good money after bad.”

Regional decline as exports drop

Three decades ago Australia exported nearly a third of its apple production.

In the 2020s, however, Australian apple growers exported just one to two per cent of the nation’s crop.

Imports of fresh apples are also rising.

According to industry data, since the 2019-20 financial year nearly 3,500 tonnes of fresh apples have been imported, with the majority coming from China.

Orange, once known as “the apple city”, was home to more than 220 orchardists in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now less than a dozen fruit farms remain in the region, despite its ideal growing conditions.

A man in a blue shirt standing next to some cherries

Guy Gaeta has turned his attention to cherries due to the decline of the apple industry.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Local producer Guy Gaeta has been growing apples for almost four decades in Orange.

He said they went from producing 700 tonnes of apples per harvest 15 years ago to 100 tonnes this year.

He has turned his attention to other fruits, like cherries.

“Growers just prune [apple trees] with a bulldozer. At least they don’t cost you any more money that way,” he said.

“We just grow them to have a small income during the off-season.”

Key stories of the day for Australian primary producers, delivered each weekday afternoon.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2023-10-13/apple-prices-up-50c-in-20-years-nsw-farmers-association-survey/102911276 Apple prices have barely risen in decades so these farmers have pulled up their trees and moved on

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