Riverina grape growers warn of looming mental health crisis as prices and exports dry up

The gross value of Australian wine grape production is expected to fall 32% this year, adding pressure on already struggling farmers

When Anthony Baggio sold his vineyard near Griffith in 2021, he closed a 55-year chapter of farming in the region. He did not want to sell up, but with grape prices falling off the back of a shrinking export market he felt he had little choice.

“Even the prices we were getting three or four years ago, you’d just make ends meet and you’re not making any money,” he says. “You’re actually going backwards because you’re not making a profit.”

That loss of control threatened to affect his mental health.

It’s a situation many grape growers in the New South Wales Riverina are facing. The gross value of Australian wine grape production is expected to fall 32% in 2022-2023, largely due to falling prices for red wine grapes, caused by global oversupply, and the reduction in exports since the loss of the Chinese market. The federal agriculture department forecasts the industry will continue to contract over the next five years.

Baggio says some weeks the only thing keeping him going was off-farm income. He took in welding repairs, did contract laser levelling and used his own truck to cart other growers’ grapes to stay afloat.

“Luckily my house was separate from the farm,” he says. “If I would have sold the farm and didn’t have anywhere to go and had to buy a house, I wouldn’t have any money left.”

Baggio now works part-time and is a board member on several committees, including the Riverina Winegrape Growers and NSW Irrigators Council. He is using those roles to advocate for support to address the unfolding mental health crisis facing the horticulture industry, and to keep himself feeling balanced.

“I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optimist,” he says. “But if I had nothing to do, I think mental health would probably play a big part on me as well.”

The Riverina Winegrape Growers chief executive, Jeremy Cass, says he is “really worried” about the impact low prices are having on the mental health of growers. He estimates most growers will come in close to or below the cost of production this year.

“We’re really worried about the mental health of growers going forward because we’ve had so many bad years in viticulture,” he says. “Every time that those sorts of things happen, it takes a bit of a toll.”

Cass says compounding factors such as China imposing anti-dumping duties on Australian wine exports; rising production costs due to increases in the cost of inputs like fertiliser and water; widespread flooding which caused transport issues and fungal disease outbreaks; and interest rate hikes are all taking a toll on the industry.

There has been a “constant drop” in the number of grape growers in the Riverina region, he says, and the average age is now in the 60s.

“There’s 266 growers as of this year and those numbers are falling,” he says. “They’re down probably 10 growers from last year.”

Many have sold up and those who are left are forced to take on other work.

“Well over 60% have got off-farm income,” Baggio says. “Their wives are working in town, or they’ve got a contracting job outside carting or picking grapes for other people or pruning.

“Otherwise they wouldn’t be on the farm because they’d be all broke by now, they’d be all bankrupt.”

When the margins are tight, one bad year can bring a business undone.

“When you fork out all this money upfront to get a crop and then it fails, it’s a big strain on families because it’s not a regular income,” Baggio says.

“It’s like going to the casino and dropping $100,000…. They spend $100,000 to get a crop and then they don’t even get enough to make up for that 100,000.”

Cass says they have growers walking into their offices every week seeking help from the financial counsellor.

“A lot of growers are in that dire space,” he says. “It is a really distressing place to be at the moment and to see some of these growers come in, in real distress and looking for some sort of help.

“They’re proud people, they don’t like to walk through the front door of a rural financial counsellor.

“It’s not just in grapes – we’ve got citrus down here and they’re really coping it too and they’ve got their own issues. But predominantly, the underlying factors are all the same.”

Growers who try to diversify their income often face perverse outcomes when applying for grants of financial assistance, because most of their income in certain years has come from off-farm earnings.

“So farmers, in order to survive and stay on their farm, have actually had to go off farm and are now not classified as farmers any more,” Cass says.


Fleur Connick

The GuardianTramp

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