WA has just one international air freight flight left

It’s been a rough couple of years for the WA strawberry industry.

In 2017 farmers selling to the eastern states were lumped with beefed up biosecurity protocols after an outbreak of the tomato potato psyllid, then in 2018 sales plummeted when vindictive persons put needles in the fruit, sparking a wave of copycat crimes.

Strawberry farms have not been immune from the coronavirus pandemic.Credit:Andy Zakeli

Now the humble WA strawberry faces its next challenge: the coronavirus pandemic.

With the shutdown of borders and collapse of air travel, WA currently has just one regular air flight capable of freight entering and exiting the state from overseas, a Qatar flight to Doha.

This meant more than $804 million in airborne exports were at risk and, along with other prized WA produce such as lamb, mushrooms and truffles, the strawberry industry was heading stem-first into a freight bottleneck unless new flights could be arranged.

About $19 million worth of strawberries were sent to markets such as Singapore and Hong Kong each year, making it the highest value fruit export in the state.

Albany strawberry farmer and growers association president Neil Handasyde said about 40 per cent of strawberries grown in WA were exported so if new flights couldn’t be arranged it would be devastating for the already struggling industry.

“We’ve had enough disasters in our industry over the past five years and if we don’t get fruit into there it is going to be another one,” he said.

The rock lobster industry is WA’s most lucrative air export industry at $467 million annually. It stopped fishing entirely after China shut down in January to stem the spread of the virus.

Mr Handasyde said strawberry farmers didn’t have the luxury of keeping their produce in the ground and with the next round of production ramping up over winter farmers were looking for freight options.

“If we miss that spot and production we can’t go back out like the crayfish guys can, our day is gone,” he said.

Value of major WA food products exported by air freight (2018-19)

  • lobsters ($467 million);

  • lamb ($120 million);

  • pork ($29 million);

  • strawberries ($19 million);

  • fats and oils ($17 million);

  • beef ($15 million);

  • baby food ($8 million);

  • mushrooms and truffles ($6 million).

Given the problem affects so many WA producers Mr Handasyde was confident flights could be arranged and it was a problem the state government already had on its radar.

A state government spokesman said they were working with WA’s export industries to support re-establishing dedicated freight services to bridge the gap before a $110 million federal government freight program, currently being developed, begins.

The spokesman said the state was also talking with the federal government to find a longer term solution for WA food exporters.

Earlier this week the Freight and Logistics Council began a survey of its members find out more about how the collapse in passenger flights was impacting exports and imports.

Council chair Nicole Lockwood said the survey would give the state a better idea of how much freight companies wanted to send overseas and how many flights would be needed.

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