The nation’s horticulture, livestock and seafood industries are predicting record demand this Christmas as international travel restrictions keep would-be travellers at home and many others return from living abroad.
Food producers hope the buy-local trend — which took off following the bushfires and continued during the pandemic — will see Australians shun imports and opt for more locally made goods.
James Patrick from Fresh Markets Australia, which oversees 430 fruit and vegetable wholesalers across the country, said food was moving around the country more easily again in time for Christmas, especially in Victoria.
“We expect the full lunch spread on dining room tables filled with locally grown and sold produce,” he said.
See what farmers, fishers and wholesalers think you need to know when planning your Christmas lunch:
- summer fish
- beef and lamb
- stone fruit
Prawn prices usually stay quite stable leading up to Christmas, but it is best to place orders with your fishmonger early if you want to be organised.
The wild prawn industry works in tandem with the farmed prawn industry to create a consistency of supply this time of year, which helps fend off any last-minute price hikes.
Alex Stollznow from the Sydney Fish Market says he does not expect much of a shift in prices in the lead-up to Christmas.
“I recommend the medium-sized prawns as they have the best balance of size and sweetness.”
The CEO of the Seafood Industry Australia, Veronica Papacosta, agreed that bigger is not always best when it comes to prawns.
“People can save some money and go for a smaller prawn like a medium tiger prawn, a Crystal Bay prawn, or a small king prawn. You will see prices for these sitting around the high $30s,” she said.
“At Christmas, everybody wants the biggest prawns they can get, but size shouldn’t count.
“The king prawn [looks] impressive, but they are not always the best eating.”
Another way to avoid high prices is to buy green prawns and cook them yourself.
They are usually about $10 a kilogram cheaper than cooked ones and can be cooked on the barbeque or in a pan with some butter and garlic.
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Oysters are becoming an increasingly popular Christmas food, rivalling prawns as a seafood snack over summer.
“Traditionally, prawns were the main thing people wanted at the markets. But that has started to stretch to oysters,” said Mr Stollznow from Sydney Fish Market.
Oysters are selling for around $20 per dozen at the moment, but they can rise by $3-5 per dozen in the lead up to Christmas, according to the Seafood Industry Australia.
“Pacific Oysters are coming out of season, and depending on temperatures they will begin to spawn,” Ms Papacosta said.
“Because of this there is a reliance on Sydney Rock Oysters, which can push the price up.”
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An emerging Aussie Christmas trend is adding a whole summer fish to the table as a centrepiece to sit amongst the stuffed turkey and glazed ham.
“We have been seeing over the last 3-5 years people using a whole fish as a centre item, so that might be a big snapper, kingfish, morwong, or even a whole roast salmon,” Mr Stollznow said.
Australian tropical snapper varieties currently in season include saddletail, ruby and goldband, while Tasmanian Atlantic salmon and barramundi are also popular this time of year.
“For example, gurnard fillets are half the price of flathead and taste similar.”
Queensland trawler operator and local seafood retailer Elaine Lewthwaite from Hervey Bay said if you are looking for specialty seafood, rather than just any old prawn or fish fillet, then it is best to get in early in case supplies dwindle.
“Consumers want variety in their seafood options and so we would expect demand to be solid across all seafood options during the Christmas and New Year period,” she said.
“The easiest way to look for value is often to search on social media, with many operators putting up their prices and availability.”
The Australian seafood industry was one of the first and worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic following the collapse of export markets and restaurant shutdowns.
It caused of flood of product onto the domestic retail market.
“Prices have recovered, and I would expect to see Christmas prices at parity compared to last year, if not slightly cheaper,” Mr Stollznow said.
“This follows the trend over the last few years of prices dropping as the industry gets better at providing for that rush and putting less pressure on existing supply.”
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Australia’s pork industry is confident it can bring home the bacon this Christmas, provided all meatworks continue to operate under COVID-normal conditions.
A leg of ham with the bone in can cost as low as $50 and as much as $250, or more, depending on the weight, how the pig was raised — free-range, organic, biodynamic — and how it is brined and smoked.
“Ham and pork are popular Christmas centrepieces so prices can sometimes increase closer to Christmas,” said Margo Andrae, the CEO of Australian Pork.
“It’s best to think ahead, and this is particularly our recommendation for hams which can be bought now and kept fresh while vacuum-wrapped right up until Christmas Day.
“You can also put your orders in for any pork products with your local butcher to avoid disappointment.”
The Australian pork industry usually contends with cheaper imports, but the pandemic and bushfires have helped to level the playing field with many shoppers throwing their support behind local producers.
“It’s unfortunate that the majority of ham and bacon in this country is made using imported pork,” Ms Andrae said.
“However, we are also anticipating a renewed enthusiasm for Australian consumers to want to choose Australian-grown produce this Christmas.”
Pig producer Tim Kingma from Gunpork farm in Victoria said an easy tip to make sure you get Australian is to buy a leg of ham.
“The smaller packaged hams are usually imported, so if you are buying a smaller piece and you want it to be Australian then you just need to look at the labelling.”
Mr Kingma said another trick is to find butchers who do their own smoking, which might help you net a ham that is a little more unique in flavour compared to ones bought from supermarkets.
“They have different techniques and woodchips which can bring out beautiful flavours,” he said.
“Supermarket hams can be more generic if they come from a larger company, but those are sometimes a little cheaper.”
Mr Kingma said the closure of many restaurants due to the pandemic cost him between $40-60 per pig in income, but the price has almost recovered as things return to normal and restaurant trade improves.
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Turkey supply is usually pretty stable around Christmas, given 80-90 per cent of the turkey sold in Australia comes from two large poultry producers, Steggles and Inghams.
“They always seem to have plenty of turkeys for the supermarkets which they often appear to sell at heavily discounted prices compared to what the few smaller producers left in Australia would expect to receive,” said John Watson, a South Australian free-range turkey farmer and the president of the Australasian Turkey Federation, said.
“Their prices do not seem to change from one year to the next.”
However, Mr Watson said demand for turkeys sold at butchers is higher this year, which he believes is because consumers are trying to avoid large shopping centres due to the pandemic.
However, according to Mr Watson, if you are trying to source your turkey from an independent producer this year it might be slightly more expensive.
The outbreak of avian influenza in Victoria has slowed down poultry production in that state, while expensive grain prices have added to production costs.
“One thing that has become evident is the lack of producers raising free-range turkeys in numbers large enough to meet the increased demand,” Mr Watson said.
“Smaller producers that we know have increased their prices as a necessity to cover increasing production costs — mainly the high cost of feed related to last year’s poor grain harvest.”
Mr Watson advised placing an order with your local butcher early if you plan to source your poultry from an independent grower.
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Beef and lamb
The supply of red meat is expected to tighten this year as many farmers look to rebuild their sheep flocks and cow herds after years of drought rather than sending them off to meatworks.
That could push the price of beef and lamb up if demand stays high, according to Jason Strong, the managing director of Meat and Livestock Australia.
“This year we have seen red meat production drop, off the back of years of extreme drought,” he said.
“As we have moved into a rebuilding phase this has impacted the amount of red meat available.
“Given demand [for beef and lamb] has remained so high in 2020, this may have an impact on prices.”
However, Mr Strong said that over the course of the pandemic, consumers have been willing to spend more money on their meat, and that sentiment appears to have continued post-lockdown.
“Consumer data this year has shown that people are prepared to pay a little more for beef and lamb,” he said.
Mr Strong said consumers looking to save money could opt for more affordable options such as mince or blade steak that can be dressed up into fancier dishes like slow cooked or pulled meat, or meatloaf.
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While it is still too far out from Christmas to predict exact pricing just yet, the cherry industry believes there will be a consistent supply through December to help keep prices stable.
“Every year is different when it comes to pricing, but demand is high,” said Tom Eastlake, a NSW cherry farmer and the president of Cherry Growers Australia.
Early season cherries are selling for around $18/kg, and bargains can be found if you have a pick-your-own cherry orchard nearby and are keen to get outdoors in the summer sun.
When shopping for cherries, look for firm flesh, consistent shiny colour around the fruit, and a green stem.
Instead of eating them fresh or using them in a dessert, try turning them into a glaze for a ham, or a chutney or relish for roast meats.
“The centrepiece of every Aussie Christmas table should be Australian cherries,” Mr Eastlake said.
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Mangoes were once considered a luxury item, but the industry has transformed them into a summer staple in recent years.
Mangoes from the Northern Territory have been slightly more expensive in recent weeks as the harvest there starts to wrap up and supply drops off.
A mango costs up to $1 more this year compared to last year, according to Robert Gray from the Australian Mango Industry Association.
“There has been a lot stronger consumer demand early in the season for mangoes this year because the industry has invested a lot of time and energy into early season marketing,” he said.
“Mangoes are very much a draw card to get shoppers into retail outlets like supermarkets, so retailers always try to have them out on show and heavily advertised to attract shoppers.”
However, the mango season in Queensland is beginning to ramp up, which usually means more mangoes on the market to help lower the price.
As for the quality, James Patrick from Fresh Markets Australia said it has never been better.
“Mango supplies from the NT and Bowen in Queensland have been exceptional so far with quality far surpassing that of last year’s crop already,” he said.
However, the lack of backpacker workers to pick fruit due to the pandemic could affect the harvest in Queensland and push up prices in the tail end of the season.
There are currently only about 60,000 working holiday makers, or “backpacker workers”, in Australia, down from about 141,000 who were in the country at the start of the year.
“Every season is difficult to find labour to get the crop off due to heat and isolation, but in Queensland it is shaping up to be a bigger issue than normal this year,” Mr Gray said.
Shaun Lindhe from AusVeg, Australia’s peak horticulture body, said it was hard to guess how the shortage of workers will affect the price of fresh produce just yet.
“Growing conditions have generally been good in most vegetable growing areas, so ensuring there are enough workers to harvest vegetables and supply customers with high quality produce is the industry’s top priority,” he said.
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Peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots will be in abundance from now through to February thanks to a good winter chill period.
Recent rains across growing areas has meant a good supply of water to finish off the crop, and damage from spring storms has been minimal.
“Prices are strong, but as we move into increased production there will no doubt be some price pressures,” said Trevor Ranford, the CEO of Summerfruit Australia.
Mr Ranford said finding workers to pick the fruit will be an issue as the harvest intensified, and is calling on consumers to help not just by buying the fruit but by helping to harvest it too.
“Our consumers can help by offering to assist with harvest during the festive season. Students, grey nomads, unemployed people and families can all become involved,” Mr Ranford said.
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