Wounded by Chinese Tariffs, Australian Growers Embrace New Markets | agriculture

Sydney, Australia – Brett Hosking, a grain farmer in Victoria, Australia, has experienced a significant cut in profits since China imposed an 80.5% tariff on Australian malt barley in 2020.

Now, barley farmers estimate they are losing $ 50 Australian dollars ($ 35) per tonne, he said, because they have to sell their quality barley malt to other markets as livestock feed.

But it’s not just barley farmers who are under pressure. Other Australian industries, including timber, barley, sugar, lobster and wine, have suffered from China’s trade restrictions introduced since 2020.

Farmers in these sectors hope China-Australia tensions will ease under the new government of the Australian Labor Party, elected in May, after relations hit a new low when then Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation. on the origins of COVID-19.

After a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last month, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong described their talks as the “first step towards stabilizing relations”. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia “will cooperate with China where possible”, but “does not respond to requests”.

But after more than two years of strained ties, some are ready to move on altogether, trying to diversify or get out as long as they can.

Many barley growers are looking into alternative crops or increasing production of other grains, Hosking said, although most have not completely changed crops due to the need to consider the long-term sustainability of their farms and market changes.

“Maybe a little more canola, a little more lentils, even a little more … wheat in cases,” he told Al Jazeera.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly a third of the country’s international trade. Although the Australian economy has held up well overall due to trade diversification and strong exports of commodities such as iron ore, trade restrictions have hit industries such as barley hard.

“It’s arguably one of the most significant market challenges we’ve faced,” said Hosking, who is also president of GrainGrowers, the national voice of Australian wheat farmers.

China is “still a very important market” for wheat in general, he said, and farmers typically grow a range of cereals, but “there is no other market in the world that requires barley malt on a par with China. “.

A similar push for diversification is manifesting in the wine sector, which has been hammered by Chinese anti-dumping duties up to nearly 220%.

Following the introduction of the tariffs, shares in the world’s largest listed wine producer, Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates Ltd, plummeted by more than 13% as hundreds of containers of wine piled up in China’s ports.

Jeremy Cass
Jeremy Cass, CEO of Riverina Winegrape Growers, is lobbying for government support for farmers wishing to switch to new crops [Courtesy of Jeremy Cass]

In New South Wales, Riverina Winegrape Growers, which represents 275 wine grape producers, is lobbying state and federal governments to support growers wishing to switch to new crops.

“It’s just having that financial reserve to switch to another type of perennial crop and even the cost of removing the vineyards is pretty substantial,” CEO Jeremy Cass told Al Jazeera, suggesting that the government could use grants or loans to low interest.

For winemakers, the decline in Chinese demand has been exacerbated by a perfect storm of complications, including the pandemic and supply chain disruptions.

In terms of logistics, getting access to ships, containers and even trucks was a struggle, Cass said.

“We have lost two or three trucking companies in our region in the past 12 months or two years,” he said, describing how the truck driver population is aging and not being replaced by younger generations attracted to white-collar work.

While Riverina initially avoided the worst effects of the recession, which saw some growers being forced to leave crops on the vine, Cass doesn’t expect the region to be so lucky this year.

“We expect to see grapes left on the vine this year,” he said.

Another NSW winemaker, Frank, who asked to be called by name, said the wineries he sells have had to put a limit on what their growers produce.

“They only allow you to grow a certain amount of tons per acre,” he told Al Jazeera. “… So there will be fewer returns and with prices even so low it basically means we make a loss.”

But the wineries he works with have been good to their growers, he said. Other wineries had to completely abandon some vineyards.

According to Bruno Altin, a Riverina farmer, many wine grape growers have turned to a side hustle to stay afloat, who believes winemakers need to start finding new markets for grapes in addition to wine.

“There are so many different cultures that don’t drink … So being able to enter those markets with a different product would be a game changer,” Altin said.

Australian wine
Australian winemakers have been hit hard by Chinese trade restrictions [File: James Bugg/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)

It is a sentiment that resonates in other affected sectors such as barley which are facing the drying up of the Chinese market.

While the “ultimate goal” would be to remove Chinese tariffs against Australian barley, Hosking said, the current tensions represent “a real opportunity” for the government to invest in market development.

“We’ve seen it quite a bit before,” Hosking said. “We had our first shipments of Australian barley malt shipped to … the Heineken group in Mexico.”

“So, in a way,” he added, “China has done us a favor by making us raise our eyes a little more to new opportunities as an industry and I think there are probably more opportunities like that.”

Cass said the challenges Australian farmers face go beyond tensions with China and the government needs to recognize that there are “problems along the entire supply chain that need to be addressed.”

“We can grow as little fruit as possible, but at the end of the day, if we can’t get it to our customers in the form of wine from the cellars, then it’s a problem,” he said.

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