Industry calls for agriculture visa trial

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The horticulture sector is calling for a trial of the newly announced Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa to commence before year end.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA), of which Costa is a member, has previously welcomed the announcement of a dedicated Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa, which will reduce industry’s reliance on working holiday makers and allow the industry to better develop a productive, returning harvest workforce.

“As some of the largest employers in the sector, AFPA members have been developing a 10-year outlook on their workforce requirements. A long term outlook reduces the reliance on backpackers and focuses on better pathways for employing Australians, workers from the Pacific and new Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa holders,” said AFPA CEO, Michael Rogers.

The AFPA is calling on the government to implement a trial of the Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa and focus on a group of registered employers, prospective visa holders and sending countries. A smaller scale trial will also enable industry to work with relevant agencies in managing quarantine pathways for Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa holders travelling to Australia.

“It is critical that we implement the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Visa this year to provide additional workers for the summer harvest, and to support the structural workforce changes underway in the sector. A trial will allow the Government’s commitment to be implemented quickly while also testing the parameters of the new visa program,” said Mr Rogers.

The closure of Australia’s international borders has reduced the number of working holiday makers in the country from over 140,000 at the beginning of the pandemic to approximately 37,000. During the same period, more than 9,000 Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme visa holders from the Pacific have filled critical workforce shortages in horticulture, meat processing, manufacturing and accommodation sectors.

“Right now, there are more Seasonal Worker Program visa holders working in horticulture than there have ever been before. This clearly demonstrates industry’s changing direction to a more reliable, productive and returning workforce model. Moving forward, the Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa will be a key complement to workers from the Pacific and is critical in reducing the over reliance on working holiday makers.

“The Australian fresh produce industry is in the midst of a workforce restructure and adoption of new workforce planning and management. An increase in the Pacific programs as well as the new Seasonal Agriculture Worker Visa will form the backbone of the harvest workforce and lead to increases in productivity, remuneration and stability over the long term. This is good for growers and good for workers,” said Mr Rogers.

Media Contact: Michael Rogers, CEO, 0409 648 911

Costa finalises Select Fresh Group acquisition

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Costa has finalised the acquisition of Select Fresh Group (SFG), a leading Western Australian based wholesale distribution business specialising in the supply of fresh produce to food service and independent supermarkets.

SFG will sit within the Costa Farms and Logistics business unit and will expand Costa’s offering into Western Australia.

“SFG increases our supplier grower base and provides a strong platform to extend our supply relationship with national customers particularly in the catering and meal kit segments,” Damian Bourne, General Manager Costa Farms and Logistics, said.

SFG trades under two operating entities — Select Fresh and Membrillo.   Select Fresh supplies fresh produce to tender based customers with high volume requirements and Membrillo supplies high quality fresh produce to the independent retail channel for resale to the public.

Mr Bourne said Select Fresh and Membrillo operate from two modern, custom-designed, climate-controlled warehouse facilities located in the Perth Markets. Both facilities have additional capacity to accommodate the future growth of the business.

“SFG has long-standing relationships with a network of growers providing year-round sourcing strength and it also has strong relationships with independent retailers,” he said.

“The business has a loyal and dedicated workforce comprised of 55 full time, part time and casual employees and we welcome them into the Costa family.”

2PH Farms acquisition and capital raising

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Costa Group Holdings Limited has entered into binding agreements (subject to the satisfaction of customary conditions) with a group of companies (Pressler entities) to acquire the business and assets of 2PH Farms Pty Ltd and its related entities (“2PH”), a Central Queensland based citrus grower for an upfront consideration of approximately $200 million in cash.

Costa will pay an additional $31 million in July 2023 for the purchase of the ‘Conaghans’ property, where a new citrus crop is currently being planted by 2PH, subject to certain conditions.

Costa has an established relationship with 2PH, having successfully marketed 2PH citrus for over 10 years in the Australian domestic market and both the domestic and export markets this calendar year.

The total upfront funding requirement is approximately $219 million (including stamp duty and transaction costs) and is to be funded with the proceeds of a fully underwritten pro rata accelerated renounceable entitlement offer (“PAITREO”) with retail rights trading to raise $190 million and existing debt facilities.

Further information is available at the Costa Investor Centre site.

UNE and Costa team up for world-first study

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A world-first study using DNA samples from hydroponics is being undertaken through a collaboration between University of New England (UNE) and Costa, as part of the Future Food Systems Co-operative Research Centre (CRC).

The CRC’s ‘Tomato rhizobiome’ project’ is designed to further the understanding of microbial colonies in the root zones of hydroponically grown greenhouse tomato crops.

A stronger rhizobiome helps plants grow better, produce more fruit and show greater resilience to pathogens. Once the project team has a better understanding about the rhizobiome of tomatoes grown in hydroponic media, they’ll use that knowledge to find ways to foster robust rhizobiomes in these plants.

All this will be of immense value to growers of hydroponic crops globally.  Hydroponics play a key role in sustainable food production, as they require less space and fewer resources than traditional agriculture.

Project lead Dr Gal Winter and industry-embedded PhD student Phil Thomas, from UNE, have set up trial plots of hydroponic tomatoes in close collaboration with the Costa Tomato glasshouses at Guyra.

“Hydroponic media are very different from the soil environment,” Dr Winter explains.

“Crops grown in soil get all the nutrients from the soil, and it is very, very rich in microorganisms. It’s challenging to study what’s in the root zone of hydroponic plants, because there isn’t a lot.

“The challenge is, how do we get a population of microorganisms [in that hydroponically grown plant’s root zone] to support the plant?”

The team has set up an experimental glasshouse at UNE to experiment with different probiotic treatments for the plants. Later, this will be used to test for different pathogens – by introducing pathogens into the root zones of our trial hydroponically grown tomatoes to see if the probiotic-treated plants handle them differently.

“Secondly, we have set up trial plants in a ‘sample slab’ at the Costa Group glasshouse facility in Guyra that emulates Costa’s standard hydroponic system at the facility; with these, obviously we don’t create any interference – we just see what is there,” Dr Winter said.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first-ever study that uses DNA metagenomics on hydroponic materials.”

Paul Butterworth, Technical Development Manager for the Costa glasshouses, says the initial findings are very promising.

“We believe the project is progressing nicely and the information already coming from the project is having an influence on how we look at our crops. Exciting times ahead,” he said.

Some of the promising initial results include the creation and demonstration of an effective sampling method to test the probiotics within the rootzone of hydroponic tomatoes; and the demonstration of probiotics persisting in the rootzone of hydroponic systems for a period of time – currently tested at 19 days from inoculation.

University of New England’s Dr Winter said samples of the root zones of the trial plants were taken by drilling ‘core holes’ into the slab.

“From these samples, we can ascertain the microbial community through DNA analysis. But rather than employing ‘classic microbiological methods’ – creating cultures, putting them on plates, then examining these under a microscope – we’re using a cutting-edge technique known as metagenomics. It is the most advanced technique available today,” she said.

“It basically takes the DNA and, through DNA sequencing, identifies a genome of everything that’s there – all the microbes. We use a piece of equipment known as a MinIon to do this advanced DNA sampling. The device is so small it could fit in the palm of your hand – it’s amazing.

“The overarching aim, once we understand what’s in the hydroponic plant’s rhizobiome, is to work out how best to manipulate that for better plant health.

“Ultimately, that allows us to develop tools for hydroponic growers that enable them to analyse and understand their plants’ microbiomes on the go – and then say, ‘now I need to apply this or that treatment’ to strengthen their microbiomes.

“And our study is one of the first to do this sort of analysis.”

About the Future Food Systems CRC

The Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is a national initiative funded as part of the Australian Government’s CRC Program and commenced in December 2019. Its goal is to broker industry-led collaborations between business, researchers and the community that improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australia’s agrifood sector, especially in areas of competitive strength. CRC industry partners include large and small firms across farming, food manufacturing and technology services that share a vision for increasing Australia’s ability to value-add agrifood production and build scale in growth markets for trusted, healthy food and advanced precision-nutrition goods. For more information about the Future Food Systems CRC, its participants and its research, visit the CRC’s website

About Costa Group

Costa is Australia’s leading grower, packer and marketer of premium quality fresh fruit and vegetables. Across Australia, Costa has 5000 planted hectares of farmland, 30 hectares of glasshouse facilities and three mushroom growing facilities.  It also has strategic foreign interests with majority owned joint ventures covering six blueberry farms in Morocco and four berry farms in China.

Media enquiries:
Merran White, Communications Manager, Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre, 03 8395 6038 or 0411 728 984

Brigid Veale, Costa Group Public Relations and Communications Manager, 0427 697 164.

Harvest trail takes couple around Australia

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After making the decision to stay in Australia rather than return to their home in Chile, Cristobal Barriga and Valentina Vargas Guzman have found picking fruit is the perfect way to see the country.

The couple, who has been in Australia since February last year, started working with Costa Berries in Corindi, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales in August last year before heading south and then north.  With Costa operating farms all around the country, it’s been an easy process to join the harvest trail.

“We started in Corindi in August last year, then we went to Tasmania and then we came up here to the Atherton Tablelands, in Far North Queensland,” Cristobal said.

“This allows you to go around Australia and save money.  Picking fruit is good for travelling, it’s more than enough money.”

Valentina said you meet a lot of people working on the farms and a lot of different cultures.

“You can talk with people and hear a lot of interesting stories while you are picking. That’s my favourite thing,” she said.

“It’s hard work, but it’s good working in nature. Usually the Costa farms are next to a beach or a forest. I like that more than the city, it’s a different kind of job.  You are part of a crew and that makes a difference, I like that.”

Cristobal said it could take a week or so to get used to the work.

“You have to get used to the work, but after a week you feel like you are doing it right. People sometimes give up because they think it’s too hard, but they don’t try enough or give it enough time. If you try for a week or maybe two weeks you get into the rhythm,” he said.

“At the beginning we were picking just for the extension for our visa, but now we are doing it because we can travel around Australia to different places and we can work at the same time. It’s a good option for us.

“The advantage of Costa is that there are farms everywhere. There are also different fruits, so you can pick whatever you want, and if you don’t like picking, there are other options like packing.”

 Media contact: Brigid Veale, Group Public Relations and Communications Manager, 0427 697 164.