YOU know that feeling when you drop a glass? You look down, frustrated, with a shattered mess at your feet. Well the glass was Australian horticulture, and one of the larger shards of that mess is Ausveg.
Ausveg has been getting a lot of press this week, after Woolworths bullishly imposed a 40 cent levy, albeit a voluntary one, on our already beleaguered growers to support a promotion starring celebrity UK chef Jamie Oliver.
But as push comes to shove, Ausveg has lost the high ground.
I know of numerous journos wanting to write about this issue - which even Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has deemed “a bit rich”. But one basic of news writing 101 is that you need meat: talent and quotes, something for audiences to chew on. And Ausveg failed to supply the Australian media with little more than a carrot.
A stand out example is when Ausveg couldn’t deliver a single grower for a prime time story on national television. It's a story that could have quickened the hearts of 1.2 million Australian viewers and put Woolworths into a cardiac arrest. But all we've had for the past 10 days is another recycled version of Ausveg's initial press release - even the "Jamie responds" story turned out to be little more than "no comment" from his PR people.
There is a story here, but Ausveg are pandering to the metro media with celebrity soundbites, when they could be taking the chance to step up to the fight with some cold, hard facts.
Muhammad Ali to my knowledge didn’t have much to do with farmer representation in Australia, but he put it perfectly when he said: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”. Most of Australian agriculture suffers from this, but especially horticulture. Why does no one feel passionately enough to take that stand and put their... brussels sprouts on the line?
Ausveg didn't have what it took to ‘dance under the lights’, and instead has tried to scrap up a fight with poor old Jamie - who, like everyone, signs up to make a buck. Now he’s defending himself against a non-story, distracting the Australian public from the real story.
Ausveg's own report earlier this month noted that hort growers are seriously struggling. An absolute bloody shame for an industry that fills up most of my plate!
Some good news is that the lobby group, along with Costa, Australia's biggest horticulture producer, is supporting a review recommending growers take over ownership of Horticulture Australia (HAL). Maybe this will give our battling growers the 'oomph' they so desperately need. It would then be ideal to see them unite under the National Farmers' Federation - as growers are farmers - and add further weight to their cause.
Harry Debney, chief executive of Costa told ABC radio last Wednesday that the horticulture industry is "just too fragmented" at the moment. "We've got too many people making too many individual decisions." The poor state of co-operation and organisation in the industry has “really just left us standing on the side watching more efficient organisations like New Zealand and South Africa, who organise for success”.
A new ownership structure and having groups and individual farmers as members would give scale and the ability to affect change. Maybe they could then glue that glass back together. Some change and serious work is needed.
Our growers are in trouble - and the duopoly is a major concern for many in our sector - but trying to pick a fight with someone who is working hard around the world to promote fresh fruit and veg seems counter-productive.
So come on Ausveg, assemble your growers and pick your battles.