Australians are being warned to brace for more food price rise shocks of eight per cent or higher courtesy of drenching wet weather and floods hitting record peaks across the eastern states this week.
Yet, despite a mix of horticultural harvest and milk supply disruptions, and reduced livestock saleyard numbers and some sale cancellations, the big wet has so far had a relatively modest impact on Australia's food supply chain, and prices.
In fact, livestock prices actually softened at some sales in the past week because the latest wet weather meant fewer buyers turned up to bid on reduced offerings of prime and store condition livestock in some areas.
Perishable food lines in cold storage facilities have helped take up the slack where supplies have been temporarily disrupted by repeat rain events or inundation over some of the most productive farmland in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and parts of Queensland.
Leafy vegetable growers' schedules in southern Victoria have been frustrated by rain, but the horticulture sector is not tipping significant immediate impacts on supplies from areas hardest hit by flooding in northern Victorian and inland NSW.
The summer fruit harvest could suffer, however, and recent torrential North Queensland rain will speed up the conclusion of the northern produce supply season, which includes beans and corn.
The federal government has forecast the floods will slash at least 0.25pc from Australia's gross domestic product by Christmas.
However, selling agents and retailers say it is still too early to predict the extent of potential supply or quality setbacks going into summer or how much prices may change given weather issues vary in different regions.
"It's business as `unusual' at present, but there's no large-scale disruption to livestock markets," said Australian Livestock and Property Agents Association chief executive officer, Peter Baldwin.
"Some micro markets are suffering cancellations where stock can't be mustered or saleyards can't operate because of floodwater or animal welfare concerns, but agents are agile enough to find other common sense alternatives for vendors and buyers.
Selling again at Shep
In Victoria's saturated north, Shepparton drew an increased yarding of 1300 cattle and some stronger processor and restocker competition this week after last week's sale was cancelled, but scheduled sales were called off at flooded Echuca and downstream at Swan Hill and Oyuen.
Elsewhere, recent cattle sale cancellations have included Gunnedah, Toowoomba and Emerald, while this week's sheep yarding shrank more than half to 15,700 at Forbes and prices lifted.
"The fact that Shepparton held a sale this week and attracted similar numbers to usual is an indication the trade can respond very quickly if sellers and buyers can get transport to and from farms and meatworks," said Australian Livestock Saleyards Association executive officer, Mark McDonald.
However, Mr McDonald said more rain and slow moving flood peaks along the Murray would require week by week market decisions, while the wet weather disruptions would certainly add frustration to farmers selling plans.
For example, sheep producers were increasingly worried by increasing risks from flystrike and intestinal worm issues undermining their sale plans.
In North West NSW, Moree agent, Andrew Pitman, Pitman Deakin, said road transport limitations and boggy conditions on properties would restrict stock availability for sale for at least a month, even if the weather stayed relatively dry.
"That's probably not really a big concern for most people, but it could be costly for lot feeders if they have cattle ready to offload to abattoirs and can't move them for a while," he said.
Supermarkets are not conceding any long term impact from flooding at this point, but acknowledged potential harvest delays and disruption to the availability of some new season fruit and vegetable lines.
A Woolworths representative said it was too early to anticipate the flow on impact to its fresh produce availability or meat supplies, but the retailer was in close contact with suppliers to understand the flooding or ongoing wet weather challenges their businesses and the supply chain.
The big supermarket group had benefited from investment in resilient supply chains to bolster its distribution network, now well tested by the COVID-19 and floods, including spending on regional distribution centres in Wodonga, Victoria; Warnervale, NSW and Townsville in North Queensland.
"Our national network involves a number of regional distribution centres which help strengthen our supply agility, and stock is continuing to flow into our stores," she said.
Geographic considerations for appropriate supply infrastructure had been a key factor in planning to mitigate floods risks and other natural disasters.
Three years of issues
Sydney fruit and vegetable produce consultancy principal, Chris Cope, said unfortunately for consumers, the latest rain events simply compounded a series of factors which had already eroded supplies for three years.
The much-publicised autumn washout of crops, such as lettuce in Queensland and NSW, coincided with COVID-related worker shortages and soaring fertiliser and fuel costs, and followed wet weather last year, all of which discouraged or prevented farmers from planting and harvesting at full capacity.
Upcoming summer crops, particularly fruit, were struggling with overcast weather and needed sunlight to mature with tasty sugar levels.
Farmers and produce merchants were worried more rain on the eve of the harvest for cherries, peaches and apples harvest would also cause fruit to split or drop.
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