Orchardists weigh future

Wilgro’s Ralph Wilson with his fire-damaged orchards at Batlow.

Ralph and Judy Wilson of Batlow’s Wilgro Orchards had more than they could hope to defend when the Dunns Road fire hit the town, and had no choice but to leave town.

“We evacuated on Friday,” Ralph said.

“We contemplated staying, but at the end of the day, it looked like it was going to be too horrific, we’ve got timber all up the back here (at the rear of the house).”

He and wife Judy left for Wagga Wagga, having been offered the use of an apartment there by a customer.

They stayed there until they returned on Thursday. They got “bits and pieces” of information about the damage that had been done to Batlow and their property, and saw footage posted by James Zimmerman which showed the store on the other side of the road (on your left when you head into Batlow from Tumut) was intact as were their tractors and the house.

“Apart from that we didn’t really know the extent of the damage,” he said.

“The problem that we’ve got is that all this up there (the cider making infrastructure) is gone, and that’s our business.”

The loss to the orchard itself is not overwhelming, but still significant.

“Not a great deal, probably about 20 per cent is burnt, the netting, again probably about 20 per cent, but that will take a lot of effort to try and clear that. It’s not the netting, it’s the costs of pulling it all down and getting rid of it.”

Ralph has one word for what has happened to Wilgro’s cider making capacity and the cider itself.

“Cooked,” he said. “Basically we’ve lost virtually all this year’s cider, so that’s a major blow to us.”

However, that’s not the worst part.

“The worst part is that we had a shed full of bins, and most of the bins were brand new, and every bin’s been burnt, and in six week’s time we’ve got to start picking. We’ve got a few bins in a shed down the bottom, but up there was our major shed.

“All our irrigation system is gone, and our spray sheds and our water tanks. It’s the infrastructure that allows us to do business.”

As well as the devastation to the infrastructure, a lack of water is now a serious problem.

“The apples have got a crop on the tree and they need water desperately,” Ralph said.

“It’s been a week and a bit since they’ve had any water, and it’s hot and it’s dry, and we’ve lost a lot of wooden poles holding up structure.”

Wilgro is insured, but that is only going to cover so much.

“We’ve got insurance,” he said.

“We’re getting replacement for the sheds, and that’s all right, but it’s the contents that is the problem.

“We’ve got $135,000 which sounds like a lot of money, but we think the damage is more like about $250,000.”

Ralph understandably fears for the future of his business and the industry in the region.

“That’s the real problem, because the industry’s been suffering for a while with the drought and with poor prices,” he said.

“Most growers, when they get to our age, are getting out of the industry. They haven’t got money to put back in and invest, and that’s why all these paddocks around here have been bulldozed out. There’s no money in growing fruit; the costs have just gone up and the returns stay the same.”

Ralph concedes that Wilgro will not return to what it was before.

“In essence, we can’t afford to replace any orchard, we can’t afford to replace net: we just haven’t got the money. We can’t insure net, and we can’t insure the trees; so if we lose the crop or part of the crop, then it’s just our loss. We can rebuild the infrastructure, which will take time.”

However, as Ralph and Judy are 70, the task of rebuilding Wilgro to its previous form is overwhelming.

“Enough’s enough,” he said.

“It takes seven to 10 years before you get an income back for replanting orchards.

“We’re not going to walk away from it, but we’ve got to scale down; concentrating on the vinegar and the cider and our roadside store; that’s where we make money but we’re losing money in the orchards because of the costs. We had already started; we pushed some of the orchards out last year. Our longer-term aim is to scale down because we’re getting too old to invest a lot of money in the orchards.”