Growers try to save beetroot jobs

VEGETABLE producers responsible for 90% of Australia’s beetroot production have formed a representative group to ensure they and their industry survive and prosper despite a decision by international food giant, HJ Heinz / Golden Circle – to take the country’s mainstay beetroot processing operations - and its 160 jobs – offshore to New Zealand.

Called Lockyer Farmers United, the group was announced today and comprises a coalition of vegetable growers, who will work with their aligned processing, transporting, political and community stakeholders in the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane – the fertile patch of agricultural land producing the bulk of the nation’s beetroot crop.

Additional Federal political and industry support is also being garnered.

The Lockyer Valley growers currently supply beetroot to Heinz / Golden Circle’s 600-employee strong Northgate plant in Brisbane – but Heinz announced in May that the 160 jobs there involved specifically in beetroot processing are being moved to New Zealand with a consequential loss of demand for local production.

The Lockyer Valley beetroot growers have appointed advocate, Mr Colin Dorber, to drive the campaign’s fund raising, representation, and post-Heinz structural changes, to enable ongoing beetroot production and potential new processing options, as well as possible expansion by impacted growers into additional horticultural or agricultural pursuits.

“In short, our focus is on a coalition of vegetable producers prepared to work towards a better, more independent beetroot production future not tied to one commodity or processor,” Mr Dorber said today.

“Immediate action is necessary as Heinz has advised that its contracts with Lockyer Valley beetroot growers will terminate in June next year and that the company will not require localised beetroot plantings after November this year,” Mr Dorber said.

“After farming the Valley’s beetroot crop for more than 40 years and now producing a crop at point of harvesting that delivers sustainable long-term employment through the farming, transport, processing, marketing and retail chain, Lockyer Farmers United is determined to counter the impacts of the Heinz decision,” he said.

 “Our primary focus is exploring continuing production with perhaps new independent processing options as these farmers have invested heavily in state-of-the-art farming practices specific to producing a consistent, high quality, market valued beetroot product.

“The producers have previously and successfully operated as independents within the recognised collective which is the Lockyer Valley – and to be dumped so callously by Heinz simply because it now ‘wants out’ has only firmed their resolve to maintain or even better, the region’s vegetable production potential.”

 The coalition has already commenced a $140,000 feasibility study – due for completion by the end of August - into developing a processing plant in Lockyer Valley for beetroot and potentially other crops.

It has already secured more than $55,000 in its fighting fund to back the study, has won the backing of the Lockyer Valley Counciland is expecting further Federal and State government support.

“The decision to form the coalition resulted from the overwhelming demonstration of support from the community, government and businesses received since the first announcement that beetroot production in the Lockyer Valley, under the Heinz-only contracts, is to cease,” Mr Dorber said.

 “It is hard to imagine the size of the impact, dealt out to a thriving, established industry, in a community still reeling from floods, by the announcement that Australian beetroot is to be replaced by an imported product,” he said.

“These farmers and their families have spent decades improving their farms, purchased machinery that is ‘beetroot production specific’, and committed themselves totally to serving the interests of HJ Heinz and the Golden Circle brand – a brand that for Australian beetroot growers is now nothing more than a rusty circle.”

The feasibility study will also look at the costs and market opportunities involved in converting to other commodities as well as regulatory requirements covering the export and marketing of new crops from the Lockyer Valley.

Lockyer Farmers United also today publicly thanked the local, State and Federal political and business leaders and groups that had formed an immediate groundswell of support since the shock May close-down announcement.

Mr Dorber said the strength of the support underpinned the coalition’s resolve to protect and further build on the Valley’s four decades of contribution to Australia’s national farming output.

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