• Tony Bosworth

Slow recovery funding leaves bitter taste for Bilpin apple farmer

Apple crops from one of the Hawkesbury’s major growers are at risk due to delays in promised government funding to replace netting lost in last summer’s bushfires.

Tourist icon Bilpin Fruit Bowl lost 7000 apple trees and acres of netting protecting them when bushfire engulfed Bilpin last December.

The business has bought 12 massive bales of replacement netting - enough to protect the entire property - and was relying on a Federal Government grant announced in June to help pay labour costs to install it.

But business owner Margaret Tadrosse said that while the NSW Government funding has come through, she claims she’s been told no criteria has been established for the Federal grant, and no decision made on which government department will administer it.

The Federal Minister responsible, David Littleproud, says any hold-up in funding is due to the NSW government not delivering a program which is already funded and he added that already over $22 million had been paid to businesses in the Macquarie electorate for small business support.

Meanwhile, Ms Tadrosse says the new bales of netting had been sitting idle for weeks, and that installing them would take months.

“The whole farm needs to be netted, and that’s about 40 acres of netting. The bales have been sitting here for six to eight weeks waiting to be done,” Ms Tadrosse said.

“Contractors will spend a minimum of three months on this job, replacing poles and wire and netting. It should have been started six months ago.

“The fire was on December 21, 2019. I said at the time my priority was to get my netting back up.

“We can’t even clear the old netting, it’s got to be done by the contractor because all the wire that holds it up is connected. If we cut a strainer, it will all come down.

“The existing mature trees – the ones that survived the fire – are now coming back into their fruit season. They are all uncovered and exposed to the elements, hail, bats, and birds because we lost the netting to the fire.”

Ms Tadrosse has sought the help of Macquarie MP Susan Templeman to try and get the funding delivered.

“It’s October and the trees are starting to blossom with the next crop,” Ms Templeman said.

“If these nets don’t go up immediately, it will leave the entire crop vulnerable to damage from animals and the weather.

“This was raised with the Federal Minister [David Littleproud in his role as Emergency Management Minister] on January 13 when he visited the area, and we talked about what the priorities were. Now it’s October and this business is still waiting on recovery funding while it prepares for the next season,” Ms Templeman said.

“If this doesn’t get done now, this well-known business is looking at even further losses from the summer fires.”

Ms Templeman said she shared the frustration of local business owners and residents at what she sees as the slow pace of the recovery effort.

“It’s been four months since the details of the Federal scheme was announced, and I wrote to the Minister about this issue more than a month ago when Margaret alerted me to the latest delay, and I was assured the problem would be fixed immediately,” Ms Templeman said. “They’re good at announcements, but not so good at delivering.

“Meanwhile, businesses like Margaret’s are trying to keep generating income so they can provide jobs for local people through a pandemic.

“I don’t know where the delay is, but this needs to be sorted out immediately so that the legacy of these fires doesn’t result in massive losses for locals.”

But Minister Littleproud has hit back, saying the hold-up is with the NSW government, and telling the Post: “My office has no record of Susan Templeman writing to me regarding this matter.”

“The last piece of correspondence I received from Ms Templeman was on 6th July, in regards to an unrelated agricultural program.

“Ensuring that victims of the black summer receive the funding and support they are entitled to remains a priority for the Coalition Government.

“I have worked collaboratively with Ms Templeman in addressing concerns around bushfire recovery for victims in her seat of Macquarie.

“My office will be in touch with the Member for Macquarie to receive whatever detail and concerns she wishes to convey on this matter.

“Regarding recovery support for apple growers, the Federal Government has signed off on the national guidance for the program.

“The State and Territory Governments are responsible for the delivery of the program.”

A spokesman for the Minister added: “On Monday October 5, Minister Littleproud wrote to the Deputy Premier of NSW requesting an update on when this program would be implemented. We look forward to a reply.

“Ms Templeman was informed that the implementation of the plan rests with NSW during her last formal engagement with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency which occurred on September 9,” said the spokesman.

“It is important to note that this program is just one support mechanism, and that other support measures are currently available to apple growers in the Hawkesbury region recovering from the black summer.

“So far within the seat of Macquarie, over $22.3 million in small business support have been provided via small business grants and loans, and over $2.4 million in grants and loans to primary producers.

“The Australian Government continues to encourage people to not self-assess, and to apply for this support.”