Market pain ahead as Tasmania battles blueberry rust

Tasmania’s biosecurity officials have given up on containing the plant fungus bilberry rust, saying “the benefits of containment no longer outweigh the burdens”.

The fungus that first arrived on the island state in 2014 can cause significant defoliation of blueberry plants and sometimes plant death.

Biosecurity Tasmania said it was proving impossible to stop the spread of the fungus, which is spread via airborne spores, contaminated clothing or equipment.

“The containment approach we’ve taken for the past few years is clearly not working anymore,” said Andrew Bishop, Plant Protection Officer.

“It worked very well for the first few years, and it was always intended to try to slow the spread to allow growers to adapt to management, but last season we saw a greater number of infections occur.”

Blueberry rust was first detected in Tasmania in 2014.(Department of Primary Industries Victoria)

Organic farmers expect lower prices

Tasmanian organic blueberry growers are devastated.

They will now be locked out of their lucrative South Australian market, which requires products to come from rust-free plants.

Organic blueberry producer Kent Mainwaring is one of those who will lose a market that gave them a higher price.

“It would make our operations here marginal, we rely on the peak of the market, if we lost our organic status it would put us on the other side of the ledger,” Mr Mainwaring said.

Kent Mainwaring, Tasmanian blueberry grower
Kent Mainwaring says he will lose a lucrative market in South Australia.(ABC News: Tim Morgan)

This will also see organic blueberries come to other markets, alongside produce from conventional agriculture.

“The South Australian market has always been a very strong market for us… any increase in supply in the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane markets will drive prices down I think,” Mr Mainwaring said.

The drop in prices could be dramatic depending on how many surplus blueberries these markets can absorb.

“We can always hope that blueberry consumption will increase year on year as it does,” Mainwaring said.

“They fought well”

Blueburries on a tree
Researchers are studying sprays for organic blueberries but a product is still a long way off. (ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Managing Director of Fruit Growers Tasmania, Peter Cornish, said these farms infected with blueberry rust had strict conditions affecting their business and it was time to admit defeat.

“All credit goes to Biosecurity Tasmania and our growers, they fought hard, they fought hard in this battle to try and stop the spread of it,” he said.

“This past year we have had some very auspicious moments [conditions] for the spread of blueberry rust.”

Since his arrival eight years ago, hundreds of plants have been destroyed and tens of thousands of dollars spent under an eradication scheme, Biosecurity Tasmania.

It was declared a success in mid-June 2016, but a second outbreak was detected a few months later and a containment approach was adopted instead.

The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture has researched and evaluated sprays for use by organic growers.

Although this research is coming to an end and showing promising results, it is expected that it will take some time before a product is ready for market.

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