Green light to Gillieston

North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
A COMMUNITY AFFAIR: Families united - the De Palmas, the Cassettas, the Speed, Thompson and Haines families, along with Cassandra Rowe and Kevin Hoarder and their five children battle to save the intrinsic nature and character of their Gillieston township.

FOLLOWING on from the Environment Protection Authority approval, the City of Greater Shepparton has given the green light to Meatworks Australia to construct an abattoir in Gillieston.

Though a definite boost to the Shepparton economy, the approval is a backflip on previous commitments to retain agricultural land for farmers.

Conversations had previously indicated that the Greater City of Shepparton’s focus was maintaining the region as an agricultural hub with a strong emphasis on protecting its rural constituents and their landholdings, and encouraging investment specifically in farming.

“The council has a strong approach to protecting agricultural land for that investment in the future,” Colin Kalms, manager of building and planning at the Greater Shepparton City Council said on a previous occasion.

“We do our due diligence in protecting agricultural land,” Mayor Kim O’Keefe said.

“Our planning processes are strict, but they are fair to everyone, and within that we are mindful of protecting agricultural land.”

The primary concern with the location of the abattoir is the proximity to residential and rural properties, with surrounding properties being directly impacted by the construction and approved operation of this facility.

The size of the abattoir, along with potential issues of dust, noise, odour, biosecurity, drainage and traffic management have all been cited as concerns.

As the 160 hectare property on Lancaster-Mooroopna Road was previously a dairy farm and milking shed, the change in purpose will directly influence the very character and nature of Gillieston, and as such has some locals banding together to object.

The Gillieston Action Group represents the majority of the 60 Gillieston residents with objectors’ properties hemming the site.

These are families who run dairy and meat cattle, who are cropping and growing tomatoes.

Cassandra Rowe and Kevin Hoarder front this group.

Having only settled on their dream property in the last 18 months, Cassandra and Kevin were horrified on learning of the proposed development adjoining their land.

Purchasing the property through the same agent who negotiated the sale of the land to Meatworks Australia, Cassandra and Kevin realise that with due diligence they would never have purchased the property in the first place.

“My main concern with the abattoir and the proposed holding yards and incoming stock trucks is the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases, which can be passed from animals to humans,” Cassandra said.

“With Q-Fever, a zoonotic disease transmissible in contaminated dust, an exclusion zone with a 5 kilometre radius is recommended so that locals in Gillieston are not affected and potentially infected.”

And with five young children who are unable to be immunised they are unwilling to risk their family to the possibility of this disease, and would choose to relocate rather than live near the site.

Realising they would struggle to sell the property, the only good outcome would be if Meatworks Australia bought them out.

However, this is not an option for many of the other objectors whose families have been farming this land for generations.

Current recommendations on the location and operation of rural abattoirs to protect the quality of water resources also discourage construction of facilities in areas that are flood prone or where the groundwater table is less than two metres below the surface.

Watertable contour and floodzone maps for the region position the abattoir precariously close to both a significant watertable and to land that floods, with the potential to contaminate waterways and bore water.

Two industry professionals, both abattoir owners in the region, also questioned the sustainability of another abattoir in the area.

They also flagged concerns over the touted 150 jobs, both low skilled and high skilled, seeming to be a huge underestimate of the required workforce to run such an enterprise.

One abattoir owner with the capacity to process similar numbers to the Meatworks Australia proposal, operates with twice the number of staff to process 3000 head of sheep a day.

And though he wanted to remain anonymous he said “my thoughts are either that the operator is completely inexperienced and unaware of the physical demands of an abattoir, or alternatively they are amazing operators and can process the sheep with a much reduced staff body and the ability to sustain significant losses in the start-up and first year of operation”.

“It’s not unusual for an abattoir of this size to lose half a million dollars a week, and this can go on week after week,” he said.

“It’s a difficult industry, and even in a good year you may only turn a profit for 35 of those 52 weeks.

“It becomes a waiting game as to who can sustain those losses the longest, and the others just go under.”

With JBS, Cobram, the McGillivray Abattoir, Gunbower and the Australian Meat Group, Deniliquin all closed since 2017, and Riverside Meats Echuca liquidated in 2018 under the cloud of animal cruelty, Australian family-owned and run local abattoirs are in a state of decline with a trend of nationwide closures.

The abattoir industry is an unstable market, subject to fluctuations and volatility, and with the lamb processing industry in particular there is an over-capacity of processors relative to the supply pool of stock.

In drought when there is an oversupply there is high profitability for the processors, but this can be short lived.

Subsequent stock shortages lead to big losses as abattoirs that remain in operation reduce the amount of kills per week and incur huge financial losses.

Stock shortages can continue on well after a drought has broken, with farmers scrambling to re-build their herds and unwilling to sell.

And with wool prices at current highs, wethers that would previously be sold into the meat trade are being retained for their fleece.

This severe decline in livestock supply and the difficulty and expense of procuring stock has forced the closure of numerous local abattoirs.

As a result investment in abattoirs is now largely coming from international companies, who are either refurbishing existing abattoirs or building new ones.

Meatworks Australia itself is an off-shoot of the EI Group Consulting Project Management, which specialises in portable and modular constructions and is based out of an office in Prahran, Melbourne.

A variation in their usual business, the EI Group is subsidised by investment company AL Reef which is based in Dubai, and has its primary interests in oil, gas, telecommunications and aviation.

An abattoir specialising in small animals is an interesting new venture for such an international operative.

And though Australia is the largest consumer of meat per capita, international demand for protein continues to grow and as a result investment from overseas operatives in the Australian meat processing industry.

With the onset of swine fever and the estimated infection of over 77 per cent of the world’s swine population, China is scrambling to purchase any available protein to cover the shortfall of pork.

Abattoirs in Australia who possess licences to export to China can command between $1 and $1.50 extra per kilogram for their product.

And with bans on live trade export, which only recently have been lifted, the international market is investing in Australian processing facilities with the objective of shipping refrigerated meat overseas, cold store.

Meatworks Australia clearly have their eye on this prize, the strong international market with the potential of high export prices and growing demand.

The question is at what cost to the people of Gillieston does this growth come?

And can the industry sustain and supply another abattoir without driving others out of business?

Time will tell what impact on economic growth the abattoir has on the region, but for the moment for the farmers and residents of Gillieston there are no winners.

More farming news and stories can be read in the December, 2019 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.