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Published July 08, 2010, 08:49 AM

Australia veggie prices to rise after poisoning

ADELAIDE, Australia — Was it a competitor or a mere vandal who poisoned 7 million vegetable plants at a seedling nursery in Australia?

By: Tanalee Smith, Associated Press

ADELAIDE, Australia — Was it a competitor or a mere vandal who poisoned 7 million vegetable plants at a seedling nursery in Australia?

Local growers in Australia’s largest winter vegetable growing region are keeping their suspicions to themselves while 12 detectives investigate the 23.5 million Australian dollar ($20.3 million) sabotage in Queensland state’s Bowen region.

Most farmers and agriculture experts agree that the significant loss could increase fresh produce costs across Australia in the coming months. Some say prices for tomatoes could double or even triple.

Workers at Supa Seedlings nursery — which provides plants to 30 regional growers — noticed the wilting and dying plants between June 20 and June 25. As the problems were noticed in seedlings that had already been transplanted on farms, police were notified.

In all, about 4 million tomato seedlings were poisoned, as well as 2 million bell peppers and hundreds of thousands of melons and eggplant seedlings.

Police investigations found that a herbicide had been introduced into the nursery’s irrigation system sometime in mid-June.

Townsville Police Acting Inspector Dave Miles said police were considering a range of motives.

“It could be a grudge, it could be competition-based ... or it could be an act of vandalism,” Miles told reporters Wednesday.

He said the detectives would investigate possible links with three previous poisonings in Bowen since 2002.

The owners of Supa Seedlings declined to comment to the media about the poisoning.

“I don’t think it’s just a local vandal,” Denise Kreymborg of the Bowen District Growers’ Association said Thursday. “Obviously they knew what they were doing, as it was a pretty technical act they’ve done. But we don’t want to contaminate the investigation by pointing fingers.”

The poisoning affected 350 hectares of production land with the potential to produce about 200 tons of fresh produce.

Kreymborg estimated the growers’ loss at AU$23.5 million, or about 40 percent of the monthly profit they could have earned in September, when the seedlings would have been harvested for sale.

She said growers would continue harvesting their established crops in the next two months, with prices likely to spike around September when the lost seedlings would have been on the market.

“You can expect prices to double or even triple, we don’t know for sure,” Kreymborg said. “There’s still going to be tomatoes, capsicum, melons, zucchinis and eggplants grown in this area, just not as much.”

But Geoff Lucas of the Agribusiness Association of Australia suggested the price increase would not be nearly as high.

“Yes, there’ll likely be an increase in costs, but double might be somewhat of an exaggeration, given that there’ll be tomatoes coming out of other production areas,” Lucas said. “My personal opinion is that although 7 million seedlings sounds an awful lot, relatively speaking it may not be, given the time of year and how many other planters will harvest at the same time.”

While the warmer climate of northern Queensland makes it Australia’s key production area in the winter months of June, July and August, the states of New South Wales and Victoria also have large growing areas, and South Australia uses greenhouses to grow tomatoes and other vegetables year-round.