Australia’s largest horticulture producer, the Costa Group, has shut the gates on its grape farms at St George and Menindee.
The company said the ‘regrettable’ decision to close the farms, in southern Queensland and western New South Wales respectively, had ‘not been taken lightly’.
In a written statement, Costa outlined ‘that changed industry and market conditions’ led to the decision to scale down the company’s grape farming.
The chairman of the Australian Table Grape Association, Richard Lomman, said it will be a huge blow for both communities.
Mr Lomman, a St George-based grower himself, established the now Costa-owned farm in 1989 for a group of Mildura grape producers.
“A lot of people were employed there seasonally … they have had over 300 pickers there,” said Mr Lomman.
“That’s a lot of people buying food in St George, having a meal and going to the pub and so on.”
Mr Lomman said growing supplies of grapes from the Emerald region, in central Queensland, had seen prices squeezed in recent years.
Oversupply saw grapes being advertised for as low as $2 per kilo in the major supermarkets, a price Mr Lomman claimed was below the cost of production for most growers.
“Most of the grapes grown in St George are domestic varieties, they’re not suitable for export,” he said.
“The whole idea of being in these early regions is to get a lucrative domestic market traditionally, but that’s not the case any more.
“2014-15 has probably been the worst year in St George we’ve ever had.”
Mr Lomman said should Costa choose to sell, it would be difficult to find a grape grower willing to buy in the current market conditions.
“The longer they leave it, the harder it’s going to be to sell.
“Realistically, there’s probably not an opportunity for a table grower grower to buy it because the market is already oversupplied.”
With a particularly wide range of good-quality summer fruit available this season, Mr Lomman said grape growers were finding it difficult to compete.
“Where we used to be something special coming into Christmas, now we’re just another line.”