2021 Food and Agribusiness award winner - Pinata Farms

Pinata Farms won the Moreton Bay Region Business and Innovation Awards’ inaugural Food and Agribusiness Excellence Award in 2021 during a particularly challenging time for farmers across the country.

We spoke to Gavin Scurr, the Managing Director of Wamuran-based Pinata Farms which started in the Caboolture district and now also has farms in Mareeba, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

The family business, founded by his father Geoff in the 1960s, is now a large-scale operation growing strawberries, raspberries, pineapples and Mangoes.

Gavin says the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent border closures created a massive labour shortage, locking out overseas workers that farmers depended on to pick and pack their produce.

He says the industry has had a reliance on overseas workers for about 20 years, mainly due to the reluctance of Australians to do the work. Workers from the Pacific Islands have been the “backbone” of their industry.

“We lost a lot of crop, it just didn’t get picked in 2020,” he says.

The situation eased last year, with provision made to allow workers from the Pacific Islands to come to Australia in September, but farms like Pinata had to set up quarantine facilities onsite and charter flights.

They also had to ensure the workers were permanent, which was challenging because they could not be moved across the family’s farms in three states, to pick and pack crops in line with the seasons, because of border closures.

State border closures also meant Gavin and the management team couldn’t visit their farms in Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Rising costs challenge

Those restrictions have now eased, but farmers are now facing different challenges with increasing costs hitting them hard.

All their supplies, including fertilisers and packaging, are delivered via freight and rising fuel prices have significantly increased costs.

Gavin says fertiliser has doubled in price during the past 12 months.

There have also been supply disruptions and Pinata now has to factor in a 16-week lead time for packaging.

Ordering that far ahead is challenging as the stock has to be stored somewhere on the farm. Gavin says many smaller operators are unable to store large quantities of packaging.

Gavin says staffing shortages and increased costs are the biggest issues facing all businesses in the region at present.

But unlike retail or service businesses, farmers can’t simply increase produce prices to cover their costs.

Gavin says the price of produce is determined by supply and demand, and prices only go up if there is a shortage of product in the market (usually the result of a severe weather event).

Farmers instead have to absorb the cost and find savings elsewhere to remain viable.

When asked if there have been any opportunities his business has been able to capitalise on during the past two years, Gavin says: “It’s just been a hard slog as it has for all of the agribusiness sector … as it has been for most businesses.

“Some have done very well out of COVID, but most businesses have done it very tough, particularly agriculture and horticulture.

“On top of that, we’ve had extreme weather events. We (the industry) are taking it one day at a time. We’re more in survival mode.”

The future looks bright

With a sense of optimism, he and his team are working to future-proof the business

“We’re looking at trying to minimise the amount of labour needed … automation, using robots to put punnets into boxes,” Gavin says.

He says such technology is capital-intensive and for most operations that capital is being used elsewhere at present.

“We’re looking a different growing techniques to even out the season, to reduce the peaks and troughs,” Gavin says.

How can consumers ensure our region has an agricultural industry in 20 years’ time?

“The most important thing is they choose to buy locally produced food,” Gavin says.

He says Australian produce is grown to strict standards, is the safest in the world and while it may be more expensive at times that’s because Aussie farmers pay more for labour.

“It makes it challenging to compete on price,” he says.

In saying that, most supermarkets stock Australian produce when it is in season and try to only sell imported produce when it is not available locally.

He says food labelling makes it difficult to see where food is grown at times, but consumers should make the effort to support local farmers.

“Ensure you buy food that’s produced in Australia. Every time you buy imported food, you’re making it harder for us (farmers) in Australia to survive,” Gavin says.

Gen-next farmers

Buying land is becoming increasing difficult for start-up farmers in places like Wamuran, with urban sprawl and a hot real estate market pushing up prices.

Gavin says his family has opted to diversify their business in more regional parts of Australia, where land is cheaper.

So, what’s his advice for a young person wanting to explore their options in farming?

“A lot of farms are looking for young people to come on and develop a career,” Gavin says

“They can have meaningful input and become managers (in time). Most farms are looking for young people interested in growing food. It’s a career that will never be superseded. Everything you eat has to come from a farm.”

He is encouraging students to consider a career in horticulture, which offers a broad range of job opportunities including food technology, food safety, marketing, human resources and finance.

“We use an array of skills to run a modern-day farming business.
So, don’t think it’s all about sitting on a tractor in the sun,” he says.

He encourages anyone interested in farming to come and visit and see what’s involved.

“Farming still is a part of the community here in Caboolture,” he says.

“Caboolture used to be a farming community. It has grown up since then but there are still world-class farming operations in the region within 10 minutes of Caboolture.

“Some of the biggest farms in Australia are in this region.”

Start preparing for this year’s awards

Start your application for the Moreton Bay Business and Innovation Awards.

The awards are free to enter and nominations close on July 17 at 11.59pm.