Cyclonic storm decimates bananas in the Cassowary Coast

Growers in the Cassowary Coast are facing a long road to recovery after suffering catastrophic damage from a recent cyclonic storm. It could take some up to 12 months to return to full production and is another blow after battling ongoing worker shortages due to COVID and consecutive years of low prices.

Charles Camuglia on his Innisfail banana property in Far North Queensland.

It approached the coast as a tropical low, but the severe weather system which tore a path of destruction through the Cassowary Coast in Queensland’s Far North on March 1, left some growers with crop damage equivalent to that of Cyclone Yasi.

Wind gusts of up to 100km/hr were felt in some areas, wiping out $180-$200 million in banana crops, with worst affected growers losing up to 100 per cent of their bunched fruit.

In all, 150 farms recorded some form of damage from the cyclonic system, the majority located in the Cassowary Coast – from Fishery Falls to Mission Beach – with some also impacted inland on the Atherton Tablelands. Australian Banana Growers’ Council Chair Stephen Lowe visited some of the worst affected growers in the days following the severe weather event and was shocked by the extent of crop losses.

“Of course, as growers we understand that we are at the mercy of mother nature. But I saw devastation that I really didn’t expect to see,” Mr Lowe said. “Certainly, around Boogan, Mourilyan and Wangan, where some have 100 per cent of their bunches on the ground, it was pretty heartbreaking.

“There are definitely some farms that will have zero income for eight to nine months and those growers still have to put money into those crops to grow them again.

“Obviously we feel for those farmers affected. It’s come on the back of consistent years of low prices and more recently critical worker shortages due to COVID. So yes, it’s an incredibly challenging time for industry. To suffer a succession of knocks, it’s hard for some to bounce back from that.”

Boogan grower Charles Camuglia, who was one of those who suffered 100 per cent crop loss, said in addition to the clean-up and financial recovery challenges, he held real concerns for his workers.

“The hardest part at the moment is probably the staff. You know we were battling, because of COVID along with the rest of the industry, with major problems holding onto staff. And we just got to the point where we had a half secure workforce. To have to knock them off yesterday (days after the storm) after packing our last boxes of bananas and telling them that we won’t see them for a good seven to nine months, that was hard,” Mr Camuglia said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Innisfail grower Tony Alcock who suffered 50 per cent loss of his hanging fruit. The second generation banana farmer said he would most likely have to put off 80 per cent of his workforce.

“For us to recover it will probably take us two months of intensive clean up, but then we can’t really keep workers on once the fruit’s been cleaned up and the paddocks have been cleaned up, we just have to let everything sit and grow,” Mr Alcock said.

“But to get workers back is our biggest worry. We have Vanuatuans working for us at the moment, seasonal workers, and if they get sent home, we can’t get them back. We really need help somewhere along the line to help subsidise these workers or some form of assistance to keep these workers here.” Mr Camuglia agreed.

“I’d like to see government put something towards helping us growers keep staff through times like this. This is different from coming out of a cyclone 10 years ago. We’ve come off the back of a good 12-24 months of pretty average prices, so the money just isn’t in the kitty to be splashed around.”

For Gurjeet and Kuldip Singh, government assistance will be the difference between them leaving the industry or rebuilding again.

“We need financial support to get us back on our feet,” Gurjeet said. “No income and trying to rebuild? It’s not possible.”

Calls continue for wage subsidy assistance

At a specially convened grower meeting at South Johnstone on March 16, growers raised their dissatisfaction over the lack of government response to industry’s calls for urgent disaster assistance – including wage subsidies – and concerns existing disaster relief options did not offer any tangible support.

Assistance falls short of industry expectations

At the time of going to print, the State and Federal Governments had announced Special Disaster Assistance Recovery Grants of up to $25,000 for cyclone clean-ups and low-interest loans up to $250,000. 

However, strict criteria for the recovery grants meant that most growers would not have been eligible for this funding and ABGC had requested that both governments re-evaluate the criteria for this disaster relief. The ABGC also had asked both the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments to consider wage subsidy assistance to assist growers to retain workers.

Ministerial visits 

Both the State and Federal Agriculture Ministers responded to a request from the ABGC to see first-hand damage suffered to crops in the days following the cyclonic event and hear from growers about the need for disaster recovery assistance. 

While at the time, growers and the ABGC had been grateful to both ministers for their quick responses, (at the time of going to print) neither the State or Federal Government had announced assistance packages that met growers’ expectations. 

Federal Ag Minister David Littleproud flew to the Far North and met with more than 50 growers in an early morning meeting in Innisfail where he heard growers’ concerns, including the need for wage subsidies – to retain staff – and urgent recovery grants. Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner also visited farms in Innisfail and talked with badly affected growers. 

ABGC Chair Stephen Lowe and then ABGC director Jade Buchanan, also met with the Minister to advocate for wage subsidies and tangible disaster relief. Both Ministers were made aware that damage incurred by some growers would affect their production and viability for the next eight to 12 months and without some form of disaster funding or staff retention assistance some of these growers would not be in a position to fully recover or rebuild.