Strawberry Industry Crisis Update

Update from Department of Health

The State Health Emergency Coordination Centre (SHECC) has moved to stand down in relation to the response to this incident. However, it is continuing to monitor incidents through daily reports. 

For your information, SHECC is a control centre incorporating a number of high level government agencies working collaboratively to respond to and investigate major food safety incursions.

Update from Queensland Police

The Queensland Police Service (QPS) is continuing to conduct an extensive investigation, Operation 'Quebec Rosella,' focusing on the deliberate contamination of Queensland strawberries. The QPS is working collaboratively with government agencies, including State law enforcement agencies across Australia to minimise the risk of harm to the community, and identify person/s responsible for committing these criminal acts. Investigations continue to focus on all aspects of the supply and distribution networks, from farm to retail sector. 

The Queensland Government has posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of person or persons responsible for the contamination. Police have received a very good response from those within the community impacted by these incidents and continue to work through a significant volume of information. 

The QPS thanks strawberry growers for their continued assistance and cooperation with this challenging investigation.

Back to Market Working Group

The Back to Market Working Group has been formed to provide a forum for discussion between the Queensland Strawberry Industry and the Queensland Government. The group will progress issues relating to the contamination of fresh strawberries including:

  • Immediate steps that can be taken to restore consumer confidence and support the industry in getting back to market

  • Intermediate to long-term measures that may be necessary to improve supply chain integrity and secure market access and confidence

  • Providing a mechanism to feed information back into the broader government investigation into the contamination, and response in relation to food safety processes.

In particular, the working group provides the framework for a partnership approach to determine the allocation of support funding provided by the Queensland Government. The group is comprised of strawberry growers, DAF staff, market agents, Growcom representatives and a crisis management consultant.

The group held its first meeting/teleconference on 25th September. At this meeting, there was an agreement on the key breakdown of the $1million commitment to the strawberry industry from the Queensland Government:

  • $600,000 to restore consumer confidence through a targeted campaign

  • $250,000 for a supply chain integrity study for horticulture

  • $150,000 for QSGA and Growcom to assist with industry response.

The second meeting of the Back to Market Working Group was held on 3rd October 2018. The group was provided with an overview of the current media situation, the community response to the crisis and what progress had been made in regards to the Qld Government funding since the previous meeting. 

A key item on the agenda for the second meeting was discussion around the development of the four pillars for the Qld Government funding, and additional funding as a result of community support. Following is a breakdown of the four pillars:

1. Communications and marketing to address consumer confidence

Purpose:

  • Immediate support for Granite Belt and national summer strawberry producers

  • Medium term to support 2019 winter production (March 2019 onwards).

Strategic activities:

  • Develop 12 month communications and marketing plan with local, state and national focus. To include international communication opportunities to address export

  • Scope consultancy pitches for: media/PR, social media, other marketing

  • Ensure linkages with other national communication and marketing activities including those that address export markets (Federal, other states etc). 

2. Supply chain integrity

Purpose:

  • Crisis review and recommendations

  • Supply chain engagement, accountability and integrity.

Strategic activities:

  • Contract crisis management specialist to review the incident and response (inc. Govt, media, QSGA) and make recommendations

  • Contract supply chain expertise to work with wholesale and retail representatives at a state and national level to build better accountability and integrity post farm gate

  • Ensure coordination with Federal Department of Agriculture, Hort Innovation, and other state organisations. 

3. Industry development and capacity

Purpose:

  • Crisis review and recommendations

  • Supply chain engagement, accountability and integrity.

Strategic activities:

  • Employ an Industry Recovery Officer (IRO)

  • Conduct strawberry industry advocacy and communications

  • Provide administrative and project support for IDO.

4. Community support donations

Purpose:

  • To address gaps in current delivery

  • Possible focus on provision of a mental health program.

Strategic activities:

  • To be finalised following farm visits and industry evaluation by Industry Recovery Officer (IRO).

Each of these pillars requires a sub-action group to ensure that they meet industry and government needs. If you are interested in being involved in any of these sub-action groups and have your say in the implementation of strategic activities, please contact Jen Rowling on 0438 752 177 or email office@qldstrawberries.com.au .

Recovery funding

In addition to the $1 million Queensland Government support package, the Federal Government has also announced its support. The QSGA is working with both Queensland and the Federal Government to ascertain details and ensure that they complement each other, meeting our industries needs without duplication.

Industry Recovery Officer appointed

As part of the State Government funding package, Growcom, in collaboration with the QSGA, have appointed an Industry Recovery Officer. Lana Baskerville will be contacting and visiting strawberry growers in the coming weeks and months to find out how the crisis has affected each of you, and provide information on support and financial assistance opportunities. She will also be collecting information to ensure that the programs and communications rolled out are in the best interests of growers and of the strawberry industry as a whole. Further information about Lana and her plans for farm visits will be distributed in due course, and she will be attending upcoming grower meetings where possible (see meeting list below).

Grower meetings

Grower meetings to update everyone on the current situation have been planned as follows:

Bundaberg:  Friday, 12th October, BFVG Boardroom from 11am

Stanthorpe:  Wednesday, 17th October, Queensland College of Wine Tourism from 4.30pm

Beerwah: Tuesday, 23rd October, Beerwah Golf Club from 7pm

For further information, please contact Sub-tropical Industry Development Officer, Jen Rowling on office@qldstrawberries.com.au or 0438 752 177.

Coir waste management for berries

RMCG is delivering a Hort Innovation project designed to help the berry industry deal with the waste involved with using coir as a substrate in hydroponic berry production. The project, MT17016 - Coir waste management for hydroponics in berries, is funded through strawberry and rubus industry levies, with equal contribution from the Australian Government.

RMCG would like to hear from growers on the following:

  • The main areas/regions where coir is used in large amounts (Australia, internationally)

  • The type and composition of coir waste that is currently used

  • Whether it is stockpiled and expected to accumulate in berry producing areas

  • Required turnover rates of coir i.e. how many seasons is the same substrate used

  • What is the condition of the coir after use i.e. is there a difference between ex strawberry and ex rubus waste?

  • The type of plastic containers used with coir

  • Issues to do with contamination of used coir (e.g. plastic, pathogens, pests, pesticides, other contaminants etc)

  • How is plastic used with coir currently disposed of?

  • Has anybody tried to use compostable planter bags or pots?

  • How is coir waste disposed of currently, where it is going, what it is reused for in Australia and internationally?

  • Costs involved in disposal and alternatives to disposal?

  • How could coir waste be better managed and what longer term opportunities could be created with the berry industry

Please contact Doris Blaesing if you have any information on the points listed above:

0438 546 487

dorisb@rmcg.com.au

Source: www.hortidaily.com

Non-toxic pest control for horticulture

 Professor Neena Mitter and researchers from QAAFI conduct field trials of BioClay. Source:  www.horticulture.com.au

Professor Neena Mitter and researchers from QAAFI conduct field trials of BioClay. Source: www.horticulture.com.au

A new non-toxic clay-based spray is currently being researched to help curb pest infestations and crop losses. Funded by Hort Innovation and the Cotton Research Development Corporation, and delivered by the University of Queensland in conjunction with Nufarm, this project aims to protect Australia’s thriving horticulture and cotton industries from pests and diseases.

The product currently being trialled, BioClay, is the result of 4 years of extensive research, and is an exciting step forward for the industry.
 
Agricultural biotechnologist and leading researcher, Professor Neena Mitter, says that the results are already visible. “Through large-scale trials, we know that BioClay works, and the work we have done to date provides a great foundation for pest and disease management across vegetable and cotton crops,” she said.

Source: www.goodfruitandvegetables.com.au

Coconut substrate for strawberries

The cultivation of strawberries requires a significant amount of precision to get conditions ideal. In recent years there has been a shift from using wet substrates, to those that are much drier and easier to control. One of the substrates of choice for many growers has been coconut fibre.

There are two main factors to consider when using coconut substrates for strawberry production. Wim van Wingerden of Botanicoir, supplier of coconut mixtures for strawberry production, suggests that both buffering and washing the coconut and the structure of the coconut are important.

Click here for further information on coconut fibre for strawberry production.

Source: hortidaily.com

Compostable strawberry punnet

The first compostable strawberry punnet has been developed by a Canadian and Australian company. ‘It is the first time that this type of strawberry packaging is available in Australia and it is currently being trialed with a large retailer in the country,’ says Brad Dennis, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for CKF, the Canadian manufacturer of the punnet.

 Compostable strawberry punnet with recyclable top-seal. Photo source: freshplaza.com

Compostable strawberry punnet with recyclable top-seal. Photo source: freshplaza.com

Fresh Berry Co, Berry grower and exporter with a commitment to sustainability, chose the Earthcycle punnets due to their environmental credentials.

‘Sustainable agricultural and operational practices are founding principles of our company’ says John Pettinella of Fresh Berry Co.

The top-sealed compostable punnets use 95% less plastic than conventional strawberry packaging, and can be easily composted at home or recycled in paper recycling.

See here for further information on Fresh Berry Co or here for further information on CKF marketing.

Source: freshplaza.com

Sex chromosome changes in strawberries

A paper recently published by researches from the University of Pittsburg and Oregon State University, has found that a transfer of genes across generations of strawberries can drive changes in sex chromosomes.

The study, which is supported by the United States National Science Foundation, is the first of its kind to show these changes.

"Although we know something about what determines whether an individual will be female or male - or the more varied mating types found in plants - their evolution is still poorly understood," said Samuel Scheiner, program director at the National Science Foundation. "This study shows that process to be much more complex than we might have guessed. These results can help create new varieties of crop plants and perhaps tell us something about how the great diversity of plants came to be."

Source: www.phys.org

Short-term visas for horticulture

 Source: Paul Donaldson

Source: Paul Donaldson

Labour availability in the horticulture sector is an ever-growing issue. With lack of regionally available staff, growers and industry representatives have been pushing for short term (six-nine month) visas to employ seasonal workers to help with a range of on-farm tasks.

Agriculture minister David Littleproud confirmed his commitment to the issue at the Rural Press Club last week, although not providing any additional information, he did indicate that the government would initiate a trial program later in the year. This come as a great relief to the industry, who have battled with labour shortages for years.

Growcom has been collaborating with the National Farmers Federation through their newly formed Horticulture Council to extrapolate the short term horticulture visas.

Source: www.weeklytimesnow.com

War on strawberry waste

Michelle Caterson from Queensland juice company, Juzcit, has partnered with Mandy Shultz, from LuvaBerry to help end strawberry waste.

The pair are taking strawberry seconds and turning them into cold-pressed juices, value adding and giving the berries a new life.

‘There’s nothing wrong with the fruit, we’ve taken the green calyces off to make it easier for people to put directly into their smoothies,’ Mandy, founder of LuvaBerry says.

Incorporating the UN Sustainable Development goals her business, Mandy Shultz aims to remain transparent, assuring customers their produce is being sourced from the most sustainable supply.

See here for further information on Juzcit.

Source: freshplaza.com

Using air to increase shelf life of fruit

Scientists at Murdoch University have developed a low energy, chemical free solution to reducing mould on fruit, potentially extending its shelf life by weeks. 

"There is nothing worse than when you go to the supermarket, buy a punnet of strawberries, and two days later they have got grey fluff all over them," plant pathologist Dr Kirsty Bayliss said.

 Source: Murdoch University

Source: Murdoch University

Described by Dr Bayliss as 'effectively lightening', the cold plasma technology leaves the fruit unscathed but kills the mould spores. 

"Basically it's just an ionised gas, you are applying an electrical current to a gas, and in our case we are just using the air and it creates this plasma," she said.

Source: abc.net.au

 

Disease solution in greenhouses?

Increased disease pressure in protected cropping situations is an ever growing problem. Compared to conventional growing systems, greenhouses, and other protected growing systems don't have access to environmental conditions that would potentially reduce the transfer of spores. The most common way of controlling the spread of these diseases has traditionally been to spray fungicides.  But with an increase in consumers concerned about pesticides and residues, some growers are looking for alternative options.

CleanLight technology, which uses low-dose UV rays to attack diseases, has been shown to reduce the concentration of fungi in a range of growing situations, and has gained interest with growers in the Northern Hemisphere.

“There are now multiple strawberry growers who are working with CleanLight. Not only against mildew but also against bacterial diseases, like the Erwinia bacterium.” Says Arne Aiking from CleanLight.

For further information see here.

Source: hortidaily.com

 

Worst glut in Australian history?

 Photo source: Barry McGee: Public Domain

Photo source: Barry McGee: Public Domain

With a range of factors contributing to an over supply of strawberries this season, growers are saying that this is the worst glut they've ever seen. 

Although this has been good for consumers, it's had dramatic impacts on growers, with some  deciding it's not worth continuing. The Twist Brothers, who have been growing strawberries for the last 46 years, have decided to call it quits after years of low prices and labour issues.

With prices as low as $1 a punnet, some growers are calling for an inquiry into the role that the major supermarkets have had in pushing the prices down.

Listen to the full story here.

Source: www.abc.net.au

 

Essex University experimenting with robotic strawberry pickers

Robotics experts are collaborating with UK growers as part of a major project looking at how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits.

 Photo credit: University of Essex

Photo credit: University of Essex

Dr Vishuu Mohan, leading the research in Colchester said “the challenge is no two berries are the same - they come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage. “Also the environment keeps changing constantly - sunny, windy, rainy - in contrast to a typical industrial environment. Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it is a complex, integration of vision, touch, force and movement on top of the ability to learn and adapt, which is the only way to deal with any changing, unstructured environment."

To help the first part of the project, which is to get robots to identify ripe fruit, scientists are working with a special variety of strawberry that has low hanging fruit.

The research will then look at bi-manual robotic coordination to recreate how humans pick with two hands, active vision to find berries among foliage and learning to counteract changing environmental conditions.

Source: Vicky Gayle, Daily Gazette

A cupful of strawberries a day could help keep the doctor away

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a set of painful conditions that can cause severe diarrhea and fatigue. Treatments can include medications and surgery. But now researchers report that a simple dietary intervention could mitigate colonic inflammation and improve gut health. In this case, a strawberry — or rather, less than a cupful of strawberries — a day could help keep the doctor away.

The experiment involved four groups of mice — a group of healthy mice consuming a regular diet, and three groups of mice with IBD consuming a regular diet, a diet with 2.5 percent whole strawberry powder or a diet with 5 percent whole strawberry powder. They tried to feed the mice doses of strawberries that would be in line with what a human could reasonably consume.

The researchers found that dietary consumption of whole strawberries at a dose equivalent to as low as three-quarters of a cup of strawberries per day in humans significantly suppressed symptoms like body weight loss and bloody diarrhea in mice with IBD. Strawberry treatments also diminished inflammatory responses in the mice’s colonic tissue.

Source: hortidaily.com

 

Urban farming in a jam over strawberry production

The rush is on to turn old factories and shipping containers into high-tech urban farms as reported in the Wall Street Journal.  In Sydney, entrepreneurs like Francisco Caffarena from Sprout Stack are in a jam: Strawberries are proving surprisingly troublesome.

Indoor farming has attracted some big-name investors. Last year, investors including Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and funds tied to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google’s Eric Schmidt pumped $200 million into an indoor-farming startup called Plenty.

Some startups have already successfully grown leafy greens indoors. Strawberries,  with short growing cycles and relatively small plants compared with fruit-bearing trees, are in theory good candidates for urban farms. But strawberry plants require a lot of light, which means higher electricity costs. And unlike leafy greens, they have flowers that need to be pollinated. On a traditional farm, bees and other insects do this for free. In a shipping container, the most reliable—yet expensive—pollinator is a human worker.

Solving the strawberry conundrum could be the difference between shipping-container farms being a niche business supplying local supermarkets and restaurants, or a more significant production source for a wider variety of crops. New techniques and technologies developed to help pollinate the strawberry flowers could be used for other fruits.

Source: Mike Cherney, Wall Street Journal

A focus on taste for north Queensland strawberry farm

A Central Queensland strawberry farm says it is the flavour and picking techniques that make it so popular among consumers.

Ballantyne's Strawberries, near Mackay in north Queensland, is the only farm producing strawberries in the region. While the produce is only sold locally, farm visits and pick your own is a major part of the business owned by Margaret and Allan Ballantyne.

"Our people love our strawberries because we are the only farm that would pick on full colour," Mrs Ballantyne said. "We have got a really good reputation for our strawberries. People go looking for them - so they've got taste. Stuff that is picked down south, are all too green. My pickers are taught to pick on absolute full colour - they are not allowed to pick green fruit."

Source: freshplaza.com

Biosecurity legacy challenges - Tasmanian QFF incursion

Tasmanian berry grower, Craig Morris has reported to The Advocate his shelved  expansion plans and inability to employ as many people this summer, as he awaits the all-clear from fruit fly as he enters his second peak season unable to sell fruit.

He said it was “pretty disastrous” because summer is when the business aims to make enough money to see it through the year. Mr Morris said he was grateful to get government compensation for his wasted fruit.

“If we had not been compensated for fruit we would basically be shut down now,” he said. “The lion share of our customers come here, so it’s knocked the top off our shop - it’s pretty disastrous...it will take us a couple of years to get over.”

He expressed gratitude to those who came with ideas to utilise as many frozen berries as possible, such as a Devonport gin distiller and a wine maker. Rhuby Delights used some to make chocolate-coated freeze dried strawberries and Anvers used a tonne to make strawberry cake.

Fruit Growers Tasmania president, Nick Hansen, said the paperwork is with the Commonwealth to assess and announce a date to declare fruit fly free status.

He said the worst case scenario was January. He said it’s out of Biosecurity Tasmania’s hands adding “everyone is doing their best”.

Source: The Advocate

Queensland season – great quality and supply

Cold weather forcing a drop in production won’t drive strawberry prices too high, with supplies expected to explode again next month, as reported in The Courier Mail.

Queensland Strawberries president Luigi Coco said a strong start to the season meant consumers were spoiled with high quality fruit at ­affordable prices from May to June – but recent cold weather would slow things down a bit.

“If we have a normal winter from now on, production should be exceptional and the quality will be exceptional; more sunshine the better the taste,” he said.

“I believe strawberries are affordable now and I think they will only become more affordable.”

Sunshine Coast strawberry farmer Rick Twist said the quality of this year’s fruit was excellent.

“I expect the good quality will continue,” he said. “Strawberries are the regional Mars Bar.”

Source: Jill Poulsen, The Courier Mail

Year round New Zealand strawberries now a possibility

Dr Mike Nichols, a retired vegetable specialist, has been experimenting with winter strawberry production in New Zealand. He has recently announced an 18-month experiment of growing and harvesting strawberries year-round has been successful.

According to Dr Nichols New Zealand-grown strawberries may be available in winter soon; if the industry can make it financially viable.

"We've found if we plant at the right time we can get a reasonable crop of strawberries in the middle of the winter and that is quite a desirable characteristic for New Zealand because our imports of strawberries out of season come from Australia and United States of America, California and both of these countries have fruit fly.

"[Fruit fly] is a no-no bug for New Zealand because a lot of horticulture exports go into countries which are very conscious of fruit fly and we are a fruit fly-free country," Nichols said.

His success was due to the regeneration of runner shoots every month, where he has been able to keep the cycle of the delicious fruit ready to pick throughout each month.

Source: nzherald.com.nz