The expansion of Guyra’s Costa Tomato Farm is promised to benefit the community and create another 150 jobs – but not all locals are convinced.
Last Friday, the Costa Group announced its intention to build a new $67 million 10-hectare nursery growing snacking and cocktail tomato varieties by 2020, and expand its packing facility to deal with the extra volume.
Guyra and District Chamber of Commerce president Hans Hietbrink welcomed the news.
“It will be wonderful for Guyra,” he said, “particularly if the majority of the employees are from here.”
Competition for water?
While the tomato farm is self-sufficient for water, the state government’s decision in June to fund the Malpas Pipeline – expected be built by 2020 – influenced the organisation’s decision to expand.
Mr Hietbrink expects the tomato farm expansion to be the first of several new industries in the Guyra region.
“The pipeline will be a wonderful thing for the town,” Mr Hietbrink said. "Once the pipeline goes in, there will be opportunities for other industries to come to Guyra, if those industries are reliant on water, and have previously not decided to come, because of the lack of available water.”
Armidale resident Kathy Clare, whose mother and daughter’s family both live in Guyra, is concerned that the expansion will put more pressure on the town’s strained water supply.
“I understand there can be no more industry till the supply is done,” she said, “but the glass houses already have 80,000 megalitres they can take from the existing supply. If the council had done the water feasibility study to start with when the first glass house went up, they would have realised there wouldn’t be enough water in a dry season and with population growth. All they saw were dollar signs. Has Guyra benefited? No!”
She worries that the Malpas pipeline water will benefit Costa, rather than the Guyra community. An advocate for the pipeline, she believes that low water levels in the Gara River make the town’s water unfit for drinking or bathing.
When she shared a photo of the filthy bathwater her daughter ran for her grandchildren, the story went viral, and was picked up by Prime News. Although the problem was put down to pipe flushing, Ms Clare called the diagnosis a “cop out”, and said the dirty water had been an issue for years. She worries that putting more strain on water resources will exacerbate the situation.
“It is appalling for the community to have that quality of water,” she said. “The town needs a good supply and updated treatment facility, but not for the glasshouses to have access to it all. I hope they cap how much can be accessed, otherwise they will drain Malpas.”
Costa Group corporate affairs manager, Michael Toby, however, maintains that the glasshouse expansion will not affect Guyra water.
“That current 10 hectares is self-sustaining for water, and that’s the intention for the additional 10 hectares. The town water that's used is for toilets and washing and drinking.”
Mr Hietbrink pointed out that the Tomato Farm had worked closely with the town in times of drought.
“They co-operated very much with council in reducing the scale of their operations so that they did not use as much water as they normally would,” he said. “They made changes to their production schedules to reduce the amount of water usage.
“Again, the pipeline will make it easier for the tomato farm to plan its operations without being reliant or having to take into account seasonal conditions.”
Armidale Regional Council mayor, Simon Murray, also said water would not be an issue.
“The Malpas to Guyra pipeline will serve a dual purpose, providing security in water supply for both Guyra town residents and local industry,” Cr Murray said.
“It's important to note that for most of the time the Guyra town supply will continue to be sourced from Guyra's own dam and water treatment plant. The pipeline will be activated during dry periods when the Guyra dams cannot meet demand, which will address water quality issues for residents during times of low rainfall.
“Similarly, the pipeline is not intended to be a year-round water supply for industry. Costa’s has demonstrated that horticultural operators can be self-sufficient for water. However, these operators need certainty of supply in rare and very extreme dry conditions.
“That is the need the Malpas to Guyra pipeline will meet,” he said.
The mayor said Malpas Dam, which is Armidale's town water supply, has capacity to supply a much larger population that Armidale. It therefore has ample capacity to meet the intended purpose of the Malpas to Guyra pipeline.
“While each application for new or expanding development would be considered on its own merits, one of the criteria would be its potential impact upon the water supply.”
He said the decision to proceed with the Malpas to Guyra pipeline has been made entirely on the benefits to the Guyra district, its community and the wider region.
“We need to expand our interpretation of local jobs for local people and have a more regional vision for growth in industry and job creation. There are a significant number of Guyra people employed by industry in neighbouring areas and we must embrace the potential that residents in adjacent districts will find work at developments in the Armidale region. That will be valuable in ensuring industry has the labour resources and the right skills mix it needs to be viable.
“The potential to attract industry and create growth was a key factor in securing State Government funding for the pipeline and enabling the project to go ahead.
“However, Guyra residents will be major beneficiaries of this decision because it gives them a much more dependable town water supply. Rather than adding strain to the existing supply, the pipeline brings an additional water source as a valuable back-up when levels drop in the Guyra dams.”
Jobs for locals?
Ms Clare was not convinced that the promised 150 jobs would go to locals.
“Why employ Papua New Guineans?” she asked. “We have a huge Indigenous population we could employ, and have a program for them.”
“The preference will be to give the jobs to locals,” Mr Toby responded. “At the moment, I can't say how that will pan out, until we actually build the 10 hectares, and start producing from it.”
Mr Hietbrink, however, was also concerned that jobs would go to people from outside the Guyra community.
“A lot of the jobs are filled by people from overseas,” he said, “and also a lot of the people that work at the tomato farm live outside Guyra, in areas like Inverell, Glen Innes, Armidale, or Uralla. Consequently the contribution to the local community is not as great as it would be if all of these employees actually lived in Guyra, but in saying that, it presupposes that there are people in Guyra who a) want to work, and b) are suitable to work at the Tomato Farm.
“There are unemployed people in Guyra, but a lot of the unemployed people are not able to work at the Tomato Farm, because the temperature in the glasshouse is not something that a lot of local people are used to. Those conditions are not what they look for. A lot of people in Guyra are not necessarily looking for work, or keen to get into work that is essentially a factory environment. The Tomato Farm is not a farm as such; it doesn't attract people who want to be on the land.”