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‘Cherries for Christmas’: Hailstorm-hit growers confident of rebound

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South Australia’s horticulture industry is confident last week’s damaging hailstorm won’t impact Christmas fruit and vegetable sales, despite some growers facing the prospect of replanting their entire crop due to glass contamination.

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The State Government is currently undertaking a full damage assessment after golf ball-sized hailstones lashed the state’s northern suburbs and Riverland on Thursday, smashing through agricultural glasshouses and shredding crops in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Plains.

The spring storm, which at its peak saw 30,000 households and businesses lose power, has already forced national insurance company IAG pay out an estimated $169 million in claims across South Australia and Victoria.

It is the third significant hailstorm to hit South Australian growers since 2017, with the Horticulture Coalition of South Australia estimating at least $100 million in damage to crops and farming property.

Minister for Primary Industries David Basham announced on Thursday that the State Government would provide an “initial assistance” of $50,000 to AusVeg SA to support the clean up of properties with damaged glasshouses.

Fruit Producers SA CEO Jose Gil said the majority of the impact has been felt in the northern Adelaide Hills.

“It’s still very early in time to understand the total damage because the fruit is still very small, but there is significant damage,” he said.

“You can see the dents in the fruits and specifically with apples and pears – that will certainly damage the cell structure.”

He said growers who protected their crops with hail nets were able to salvage most of their fruit, but others had lost upwards of 70 per cent of their produce.

“Because [the fruits] are so small, there could be an opportunity where they may grow it out, but from what the growers have told me, more than likely they’re not going to be salvageable,” he said.

Hailstorm damage to zucchini in Virginia, SA (Photo: Phuong Le)

Gil suggested the damaged fruit may have to be sold under a “hailstorm heroes” banner in supermarkets, similar to previous campaigns from the horticulture industry.

But he said that the impact on the South Australian fruit market and consumers would not be felt until after Christmas.

“The fruit that’s been damaged by the hailstorm won’t be seen until March, April, May next year,” Gil said.

“So in today’s world, there won’t be any impact to what you’re seeing in the market.

“In regard to cherries … the cherry growers have guaranteed that there will be cherries on the table for Christmas.”

Gil said the worst-affected growers would be exploring their eligibility for federal government disaster payments while the industry awaits further details of a State Government support package.

Among the growers to take a hit was Thorndon Park Produce general manager Anthony De Ieso, whose fourth-generation family farm is located near Gawler River on the Adelaide Plains with another smaller production site near Virginia in Waterloo corner.

He said a majority of crops were wiped out at both sites.

“Luckily the hail was most damaging at Waterloo corner, which affected 90 per cent of what was grown there,” De Ieso said.

“At Gawler River, in total, we’re probably looking at 60 per cent damage.

“Some of the crops like our spring onions and our parsleys fared a lot better in the hail than our spinach and silverbeet.”

De Ieso estimated that 90 per cent of the farm’s spinach and silverbeet crops have been lost due to “immediate shredding” from the hail.

“There is long term damage from the hail that we will feel for months going forward, such as scarring,” he said.

“And there’s other damages that won’t’ appear just yet, things like disease, planting and growth, all that type of stuff.”

However, De Ieso said he was “very optimistic” the business could rebound in time to meet Christmas demand, provided the weather remains stable to regrow crops over the summer.

“For us I guess the good news is that if we lose a crop, it’s just out in the field we can regrow it,” he said.

“But for your lower tech, older glasshouses and those growers – they’re shoving glass on the crop, they’ve lost that entire plot … [it will] probably be ages before they can plant again.

Everyone that I have spoken to so far has all agreed that this is something that they’ve never really seen before.

“I guess the mood would just be shock, it’s still early, these are still fresh wounds.”

Glasshouse damage at Virginia.(Photo: Phuong Le/GoFundMe)

Horticulture Coalition of SA chair Angelo Demasi said some growers would face immediate cash flow issues during the clean up process.

“The immediate term [challenge] is getting some of the shattered glass, and they really need to get on with getting that [done] and starting afresh with a new crop,” he said.

“Some of them will have cash flow issues to get there, so it’s obviously ensuring that in the immediate term they can continue to put food on their table.”

Demasi said last week’s weather event “certainly raises a few questions” about how the industry plans for natural disasters in the future.

In the wine sector, many vineyard owners are waiting for next month’s harvest to assess the full extent of the damage, according to Adelaide Hills Wine Region Chair Alex Trescowthick.

“It’s so hard to really measure the damage until your harvest,” he said.

“You don’t know whether you’ve got the same crop or you’re down five per cent or you’re down 40 per cent.”

Trescowthick, who is also winery operations manager at RedHeads Wine in Nuriootpa, said one of the main challenges which could stem from the storm is increased operating costs to mitigate disease.

“I think they’re going to have to have increased costs to manage their vineyard because the canopy has kind of been cut back and the vines are going to now have all this growth and they’re going to push sideways and upwards,” he said.

“But you don’t want to blow things out of proportion too because so far we’ve been on track to have a really good vintage.

“In general, the Adelaide Hills is relatively fortunate to not cop too much damage, but there were a couple of isolated vineyards that bore the brunt of it.

“Some of those vineyards are in recovery from the 2019 fires, so potentially this will be their third year of no income which is obviously pretty tough.”

Meanwhile, national insurance provider IAG reported to the Australian Stock Exchange on Tuesday that they have paid out 14,000 insurance claims in SA, Victoria and South East Queensland due to the storms.

The company estimates the net claims cost of the South Australian and Victorian storms to be $169 million.

The weather event has forced the company to revise its expectation for natural perils claim costs up by $280 million this financial year.

IAG Managing Director Nick Hawkins said the company is allocating extra resources to assess and process the number of insurance claims in South Australia.

“We have people on the ground across South Australia and Victoria assessing claims and commencing repairs, and our drive-in specialist hail repair sites will be open from next week in Elizabeth and Salisbury South in Adelaide to assess and triage hail-damaged vehicles,” Hawkins told the ASX on November 2.

“We encourage our customers to contact us as soon as they can if they need to lodge a claim, so we can arrange emergency repairs or temporary accommodation.”

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