Updated December 05, 2012 19:29:09
The mining boom has thrown an unexpected lifeline to struggling fruit growers in South Australia.
To pay the bills, some growers have become fly-in-fly-out mine workers.
The steady salaries and predictable shifts have delivered some much needed stability for families struggling to stay on the land in South Australia’s Riverland region.
State Member for Chaffey, Tim Whetstone, says low fruit prices, high input costs and lingering debt, have prompted many to consider the mining industry.
“They see this pot of gold in the mining arena and they chase it. I would like to think we retain those people and keep that pot of gold here,” he said.
Mr Whetstone says he hopes the Riverland can service the needs of the mining industry, without losing its local population.
“We’ve got that expertise in delivering what the mining industry is needing,” he said.
“There will be shortages of employment and that expertise, and if this region can actually sell itself to the mining industry, we can retain that skill base.”
Lindsay Tyler was a fruit grower, packer and semi-trailer driver, but was struggling to make a living. Now, he is a truck driver at Roxby Downs in the north of the state.
“I had never lived away from my wife in nearly 28 years of marriage. So the biggest challenge was being 700, 800 kilometres away without my family,” he said.
Mr Tyler drives to Adelaide and then flies to Roxby every two weeks.
It is disruptive for his wife and family, but he says it is a lot better than when he was working long hours as a semi-trailer driver.
“Apparently I used to snap at the children a lot after a week away, you’d be that stressed and tensed. Now I’m just more relaxed and a lot happier,” he said.
Ben Haslett, the spokesman for Riverland Communities, says he is confident of the future of the region, but says some growers are finding it hard to hang on.
“I think that’s true, and obviously there are people lured by the mining game. And families, farming families especially, tend to work right down to the bone before they move onto something else, before they are forced to react,” he said.
Mr Haslett says input costs have risen sharply for some growers in the Riverland, especially for the electricity needed to drive irrigation pumps.
“Some of the larger irrigating bodies around this area have seen over the past three years up to a 100 per cent increase in their power price, which is massive in anyone’s language,” he said.
The economic downturn is felt in the towns of the Riverland too.
Primary production is the biggest single industry in the region and local unemployment is 2 per cent higher than the South Australian average.
Val Fewster, a member of the local suicide prevention group, says it has put a strain on the community.
“I think it’s very, very difficult at the moment, right across the region, but I still think it’s a beautiful place to live,” she said.
“And I think the blockies and the farmers, I think they, as difficult as what it has been and is for them, we will see them come through at the other side.”
The race to make a living has changed daily life for many families.
Shirley Tyler takes on the role of a single parent while her husband is away at the mines, but she says it is better than their old life on a fruit block.
Around 300 people leave the region for mining industry and mining industry related work opportunity each per annum.
Now that represents slightly less than 3 per cent of the total workforce in this part of the region.Brenton Lewis, from Regional Development Australia
“It was very unpredictable and we didn’t see a lot of him. And when he did come home he ate and he went to sleep,” she said.
Her son Ashley is preparing for a swimming squad trip to Sydney. Last year, he was unable to go because the family could not afford it.
“It wasn’t possible at that time for us to send him there. There was just no way we could have done it financially,” Ms Tyler said.
The average wage and salary income in the Riverland is only $34,000 a year, well below the big salaries of the mines.
The scrapping of the proposed expansion of Olympic Dam in South Australia has clouded some of the optimism, but Brenton Lewis, from Regional Development Australia, says for many, mining is still an offer too good to refuse.
“Around 300 people leave the region for mining industry and mining industry-related work opportunity each year. Now that represents slightly less than 3 per cent of the total workforce in this part of the region,” he said.
The worry is that it may only be a short-term fix to long-term problems in the Riverland.
While some fruit growers have taken to the mines, their fruit blocks are still marginal.
Jeff McDonald, from Riverland Lending, says there are still many challenges ahead.
“I tend to add one comment on there is that they are buying time and at some stage if nothing changes, you’ve got to wonder if someone was going to look at their position in 10 years’ time and they were going to be poorer than they are today, you’ve got to wonder why they do it,” he said.Topics:
fruits, agricultural-crops, rural, farm-labour, mining-industry, loxton-5333, renmark-5341, sa, australia First posted December 05, 2012 19:20:37