Prices up, quality down. That's the word from providores on the ongoing effect the summer's floods, storms and heatwaves are going to have on produce at the retail level. The National Farmers' Federation has estimated that the summer's disasters' cost to Australian agriculture is in the vicinity of $700 million, and the cost to many individuals is, of course, beyond counting, especially in light of the fact that it was shaping up to be a very good harvest. But, as serious as the situation is, prominent providores say some of the predictions for ongoing ramifications at the consumer level that were made as the disasters struck may have been overstated.
Though sugar and a range of tropical fruit crops were also hit hard, damage to banana plantations has received the lion's share of post-cyclone publicity, and an estimated 75 per cent of this year's crop has been lost. Sydney providore John Velluti says, however, that the steps taken by growers mean that the recovery period mightn't be as lengthy as that following Cyclone Larry in 2006. "This time the guys in Tully and Innisfail had a lot more warning, and what a lot of them did was get out and cut their trees in half, so instead of waiting 18 months to replant a tree that was ripped out of the ground, it'll only take eight months to recover."
Fratelli Fresh's Barry McDonald says that one upside of the cyclone is that bananas grown in New South Wales are getting play in markets normally closed to them. The slower-growing NSW banana, he says, usually gets a lower price because its appearance isn't so good, but it actually tastes better. "They're longer on the plant, and they're creamier; the appearance is dull and they can be spotty, but the flavour is good. If people buy those because they don't have an alternative and like them, it might get them thinking about other fruit."
The Queensland disasters, says Nick Miriklis from Melbourne's Vegetable Connection, wouldn't normally have had a major effect on prices around the country, but in combination with flooding in Victoria, they'll rise "past 40 per cent in some cases," especially for major Victorian crops such as legumes.
Queensland produces a significant fraction of Australia's beef, so you can expect prices to go up and stay up as a result of the floods. (Lamb prices were reaching record highs even before the summer.) The majority of both top-end and lower-quality beef grown in Australia, says Anthony Puharich from Vic's Premium Quality Meat, is usually sourced from the same southern Queensland area affected by the floods. "It's a major contributor in terms of the amount of meat processed in Australia." Between lost stock, cut roads and rail links, abattoir closures and flooded feed crops, he says, reduced supply and strong demand have driven prices up.
Some effects of the floods are still to be seen. Justyn McGrigor, of Murdoch Produce, is concerned about the winter strawberry crop. "Our business came away from Yasi relatively unscathed, but Australia's best strawberry season is winter in Queensland, and I don't know what effect these rains will have."
But it's not all bad news. The price of pork has remained stable, for instance, and not every cut of beef has jumped in price. "Many export-focused secondary cuts of beef - oyster blade, skirt, short rib, brisket, shin - haven't changed in price at all," says Adelaide butcher Richard Gunner. "I'm hoping we realise what the Koreans see in short rib or the Argentines see in skirt or the Taiwanese in shin or the Texans in brisket. Might be a strong catalyst for the home cook to go from reading about these cuts to actually having a go at home with them."
Barry McDonald also sees the potential for some positive outcomes. "I think most produce buyers are homogenised by the supermarket chains into buying product by its appearance," he says. "It doesn't necessarily relate to flavour - it just looks nice. Because of the floods and cyclone, we're going to have to accept slightly less perfect-looking fruit, and I think that might give us a long-term change, one where we concentrate more on flavour."
The best advice, says Justin McGrigor, is to buy only what you need rather than try to store fruit and veg. "If you're going to buy it on the day, use it on the day. Fruit and veg that's either waterlogged or heat-affected will crumble quickly."
"Growers are fairly resilient and can turn things around surprisingly quickly," he adds. "We have the advantage of being able to pick from a wide range of the country, and other regions can pick up the slack." If there's something everyone agrees upon it's this: smart cooks can roll with the punches. Be flexible in your menu planning, use your nose and your head rather than just your eyes when you're buying, buy local and you'll be okay. PAT NOURSE
Rise and shine
*Floods and cyclones have ravaged Queensland, but the Sunshine State's tourist operators are open and ready for business.
- Floods may have affected three-quarters of Queensland, and cyclones Anthony and Yasi may have blasted the tropical north, but Tourism Australia and Tourism Queensland are spending $10 million on a campaign to reassure domestic and international travellers that most of the state's tourism destinations are intact.
"It's to tell Australians and to tell Kiwis, in particular, that Australia is very much open for business and trading," says Andrew McEvoy, managing director of Tourism Australia, who laments that dramatic images of the floods and cyclones have created the impression that entire destinations are in limbo. "Perception becomes reality."
Queensland tourism operators are fighting that perception, and what they really want now is your business. While once-idyllic areas such as Mission Beach and Dunk and Bedarra islands bore the full brunt of Cyclone Yasi, Cairns and the Whitsundays, for example, came through relatively unscathed and continue to operate as normal. To the south, the Sunshine and Gold coasts were all but untouched.
The best thing now is for tourists to turn up again. "Because two things will happen," McEvoy says. "One is they'll get an incredibly good welcome from some very appreciative tourism operators in north Queensland, and two they'll help the economy."
If there is a ray of light for North Queensland, it's that Cyclone Yasi hit during the slower stinger season. McEvoy says that tourism numbers in the busy Easter season will be "an acid test for us". To help the cause, premier Anna Bligh has announced a campaign to woo interstate holidaymakers to the Whitsundays, with lower airfares and free nights of accommodation as part of package deals.
Michael Wilson, a senior analyst at IBISWorld, praises the campaigns to win back the tourists. "Convincing leisure travellers that despite a recent spate of natural disasters they're still better off going to Queensland than Western Australia or New South Wales is the big challenge, and governments have a role to play in communicating to consumers," he says.
IBISWorld has cut its forecast for Australia's tourism industry revenue for 2010-11 from $84.20 billion to $83.61 billion, yet Wilson expects some tourists to make a special effort to visit these locations in a show of support, just as they did after the Victorian bushfires of 2009.
Wilson's forecast will be welcomed by properties such as Brisbane's Stamford Plaza hotel, which remains in recovery mode but is expected to reopen at the end of March. "There has been an enormous amount of lost business," concedes marketing manager Debbie MacGillivray, pointing out the irony that the hotel's key selling point - its proximity to the river - is what brought it unstuck. Still, properties not physically damaged by the floods, such as the boutique hotel Spicers Balfour, haven't escaped unscathed. "We did lose a fair bit of business in January," says general manager Matthew Simpson. "However, we're bouncing back quite fast."
Tourism Queensland chief executive Anthony Hayes says it's important momentum is not lost after the free kick the state's tourism industry received from Oprah Winfrey's much-hyped visit late last year. Hayes is confident that American and Asian tourists, conditioned to hurricanes and typhoons, will quickly put Queensland back on the travel map. "We don't think it will have a long-term negative impact," he says. "It's important to talk about the beautiful product that we do have and [let people know] it is still a fun place and a great place for a holiday." CAMERON COOPER