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Farmers' warning as El Niño looms



We all remember the infamous $12 iceberg lettuce of winter 2022.

With La Niña's three-year reign over our weather finally coming to an end in March, you could be forgiven for assuming that sky-high fruit and vegetables were a thing of the past.

But now farmers have a new warning for consumers: stock up now, because a new threat is looming.

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Victorian vegetable grower Catherine Velisha told 9News that Australia is currently in a "Goldilocks" period of near-perfect growing conditions, resulting in a glut of affordable fruit and vegetables.

"We're in a real growing flush – this is for most products, both fruit and veg," she said.

"This has been our first year in quite a long time that we've had so much available stock, with absolutely no disruptions."

Last year's floods and heavy rains devastated crops of leafy greens in particular, while previous years also saw unfavourable weather and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions.

This year has seen comparatively mild, drier weather – bringing the price of an iceberg lettuce back under $2.

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A whole head of cauliflower at Woolworths is currently $3, a head of broccoli is $1.19 at Coles and a crispy fresh capsicum can be had for as little as $1.

"On average prices are about 40 per cent less than they were last year across the board for vegetables, which is huge," Velisha said.

"Things don't get much lower than what they are at the moment, that's for sure."

However, as the world's weather cycle comes full-circle into an El Niño, these prices may be short-lived.

As well as a heightened risk of bushfires, an El Niño event frequently brings with it drought conditions.

A drier, warmer winter has already taken its toll on crops essential to many of our supermarket shelf items, wiping a predicted $12 billion off the cost of agricultural production this financial year.

Production of wheat is forecast to drop by 36 per cent this season after three record-breaking years, while canola yields are set to plummet 48 per cent, according to Department of Agriculture forecasts.

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Farmers' full water catchments and bores after three years of rain are currently providing a plentiful supply to irrigated produce like vegetables, but a prolonged dry spell would also put these at risk in coming seasons.

A particularly hot summer can also cause sun damage to produce.

It's unlikely to wipe out a crop, Velisha says, but may turn your cauliflower leaves a bit brown or tinge your broccoli yellow.

"The rest of the year we're looking good but now we've entered into a different period where there will be less rain for a few years," Velisha said.

"Now's the time to buy and make the most of (low prices) because we don't know what is coming."

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