The Bushfire Bill: The Real Cost to Your Next Meal

Catastrophic fires and floods ravaged vast tracts of the land over summer. Though Melbourne is hundreds of kilometres from the worst of this, our restaurants are facing escalating food costs and even ingredient shortages. What does it mean for diners? To find out, we spoke to 20 chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, wholesalers, distributors and market analysts.

Published on 05 March 2020

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

If Dorothea Mackellar had written My Country today, rather than in 1904, how would the famous poem have turned out? Would she still be professing her love for this country’s droughts, flooding rains and “terror”?

On paper, the recent bushfires weren’t the worst on record. Others, some of which occurred in Mackellar’s lifetime, claimed more human lives, burnt larger areas of land and destroyed more property. But statistics don’t fully capture the horror of fire season. This one was unprecedented in many ways, not least for the way it rattled the national consciousness. For millions of Australians, this sunburnt country no longer feels as safe and nurturing as it once did.

Those who work the land and produce our food – the growers, pickers, processors, transporters, distributors and chefs – are particularly affected, both materially and psychologically. The impacts on them are countless and may take years to fully reveal themselves. Already, though, Melbourne’s restaurants are facing some clear consequences. It raises the question: what’s going to happen to our wonderful food culture? Can we keep dining the same way, at the same prices?

Photography: Dan Herrmann-Zoll

Matt and Katie Zagami have lived in the Wairewa Valley, near Lakes Entrance, Gippsland, for 20 years. They grow green beans, snow peas and sugar snaps on their 380-acre farm, AvaGrow. When fire came roaring through the area on December 30 last year, the Zagamis abandoned their original plan – to stay and defend – and evacuated to be with their four young children. When they returned a few days later, the farm was gone.

“We couldn’t have imagined how bad it was,” Matt says.

Eighty per cent of the couple’s crop was obliterated, along with sheds, fences, irrigation lines and their newly renovated home. It was two weeks before power came back, and another month before work resumed on the farm. The vegetables that survived and made it through to harvest were later hit by rain and unseasonal humidity. A large portion developed fungal infections – something spraying usually prevents – and became unsaleable.

“The crops got fairly well neglected,” Matt says. “Once you’ve lost your spraying windows, you’ve lost them.”

Almost 300 kilometres west, in Melbourne, chef Almay Jordaan is feeling the distant echo of the Zagamis’ pain, and that of many other farmers like them. Green beans have become so expensive she’s removed them from the menu at her restaurant, Brunswick East’s Old Palm Liquor.

“I’m torn,” she says. “In a restaurant such as mine, where we just change the menu, that’s really easy. I go, ‘That’s fine, I’ll just take those items off my menu and work around it.’ However, I come from a farming background – my entire family are farmers and the only thing I want to do is support these people to get back on their feet. It doesn’t help if everyone stops using their stock now.”

These acrobatics aren’t equally feasible for all chefs and restaurants, though. Shannon Martinez feeds upwards of 160 people a night at Smith & Daughters, her vegan diner on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. Every change to the menu means updating the price of affected dishes. “To do that every day takes my head chef out of the kitchen and incurs more staff costs,” Martinez says. “We can’t afford to reprint 100 menus every second day [either].” Her front-of-house team is currently passing on menu updates verbally.

Even for chefs and restaurants with Jordaan’s level of flexibility, three years of severe drought has, in many ways, been more destructive than the fires. It’s affecting the price of most fresh produce at a level that’s much harder to work around. Lower rainfall means drastically reduced yields, and ultimately less produce of all kinds going to wholesale markets.

Even after the recent deluge, 98.5 per cent of NSW remains in drought or drought-affected. In Queensland, 67 per cent of the state is in drought, a figure that reached as high as 87 per cent in 2017. Every other state and territory is also stricken, to varying degrees – even verdant Tasmania. During and after the fires, burnt farmland and major road closures only compounded a situation that’s long been dire. The Princes Highway through Gippsland, for example, was closed to trucks for a month in January, meaning food couldn’t get out. Dozens of smaller local roads are still inaccessible.

“I’ve done a calculation from this time last year to now. Our prices are up, across the board, by 32.3 per cent,” says Kim Driver of Northside Fruit & Veg. He wholesales produce to 250 Melbourne restaurants, including Attica, Ides, Sunda, Añada, Congress, Smith & Daughters, Annam and Harley & Rose.

Driver throws out some numbers. This year his green beans have trebled in price, from $6 a kilogram to $18, due to three years of low supply from Queensland and more recently from fire-affected Gippsland. Avocados are $60 for a tray of 36, rather than the usual $35, because they’re coming all the way from Western Australia, rather than Victoria. Herbs such as basil, dill, chervil and coriander have leapt from $2 to $4 a bunch. A head of cauliflower, usually $2.50, is now $5. And worst of all, tomatoes are $40 a box, rather than $10 – a four-fold increase during their peak season, thanks to an unusually cold summer that’s prevented ripening.

Imagine your morning coffee suddenly cost $16, or a tank of petrol set you back $280, and you have a measure of the financial stress many restaurants and cafes are under right now. Even basics such as brown onions have become unaffordable.

Photography: Savannah van der Niet

“Customers already don’t want to pay much for food as it is,” Martinez says. “People have this feeling that [the restaurant has] to absorb everything – increased wages, increased rent, all that shit. It’s almost restaurants’ responsibility to just absorb that, so they can remain at this even spot with their pricing. Unfortunately, that’s gonna fuck us up pretty badly if it continues.”

Driver and his business partner, Michael Buchanan, are scrambling to reform their business model in response to the fires. Most distributors working at the restaurant level start their day at the wholesale market in Epping, buying produce from farms all over Australia.

“We do that as well, but over the last couple of years I’ve been focusing on the smaller local farms – farms that don’t go to the wholesale market – and building up the relationship with them,” Driver says. “We’ve had to put it in high speed now, after these fires.”

Many of Driver’s mornings now begin at city-fringe farms in Cranbourne, Koo Wee Rup, Werribee and the Yarra Valley, finding cheaper versions of the produce that’s overpriced at (or absent from) the market in Epping.

“Lots of fruiterers have gone direct to farms before,” he says. “But not on this level, and not out of necessity. I’ve got a lot of friends in the same industry, and they’re all starting to pivot that way as well, having to go directly to the farm. Since these fires, the local farms have become cheaper than the huge ones who are supplying so much of Australia.”

The six chefs we interviewed for this story all repeated this sentiment in different words. The shortages of fruit and veg are severe, but asymmetrical. There’s intense pressure in the commodity market, where produce is pooled at markets and priced according to supply and demand. But it’s business as usual for small urban-fringe farms that set their own prices and haven’t suffered fire damage or related transport issues.

Andreas Papadakis, executive chef at Italian restaurants Tipo 00 and Osteria Ilaria, gets much of his produce from Day’s Walk Farm. The organic operation is located in Keilor, 20 kilometres from the CBD.

“50-cent onions may have gone up,” he says. “But we’re already paying $2 an onion. It hasn’t affected us so much, actually.” Even so, Papadakis admits that like Almay Jordaan, he’s stopped using green beans. Perhaps he’s just more relaxed about the same shortages and price hikes other chefs are experiencing? It’s hard to say.

Dave Verheul, executive chef at Embla and Lesa, gets a lot of his vegetables from Transition, an organic farm on the Mornington Peninsula that also supplies Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co, Cumulus Inc and Supernormal. Like Papadakis, he seems relatively unfazed by recent prices.

Ultimately, the financial strain on each restaurant seems dependent how much it sources from the commodity market. And even our very best restaurants rely on this side to some degree. Coping with that strain, meanwhile, is often a matter of agility. A 40-seat, owner-operated restaurant can change or adapt its menu more readily than one with 300 seats, and is more likely to have direct relationships with farms in the first place.

Fresh produce will remain pricey until the drought breaks and bushfire-affected farms and roads can be rebuilt. The restaurants we spoke to have chosen to absorb these costs for the time being. Dishes that include lots of vegetables should, in most cases, continue to cost about what they did last year. That said, certain vegetables, such as beans, cauliflower and broccoli, will be absent from many menus in 2020. More restaurants and distributors will switch to using smaller, more local farms, meaning fresher produce for diners.


Khanh Nguyen, owner-chef at Punch Lane restaurant Sunda, says the recent shortage of Sydney rock oysters has caused him more concern than the rise in vegetable prices. (He’s a Northside Fruit & Veg customer, like Martinez.) Sunda serves the briny molluscs with shallots and a coconut-curry vinaigrette. It’s been a star entree since the doors opened in April 2018.

The Clyde River, which feeds into Batemans Bay, is one of several major Sydney rock oyster-producing regions in NSW and contains 20 of the state’s 270 commercial shellfish farms. This season, out-of-control bushfires threatened the area from November 26 to February 8, ending only after a 24-hour deluge dumped 400 millimetres of rain and extinguished the flames.

While the two-month-long blaze directly affected few, if any, oyster farms near Batemans, the attendant road closures were even more disruptive than Gippsland’s. There are just three roads out: north (towards Sydney), west (towards Canberra) and south (towards Melbourne). Only the southern road remained open, doubling the four-hour trip to Sydney and requiring two drivers per truck, rather than the usual one. Oysters bound for Sunda, Old Palm Liquor and other Melbourne restaurants are typically flown out of Canberra, a two-hour drive from Batemans. During the fires, this trip also doubled.

“We had staff travelling from Ulladulla and Mollymook to Batemans Bay to work here,” says Craig Smith, who runs his own farm near Batemans and is also the chief operating officer of Australia’s Oyster Coast, a collective of 45 oyster growers spread across 13 estuaries in NSW. “They couldn’t get through to our processing factory. We hired a couple of apartments here in Batemans Bay two weeks out from Christmas and housed some of our workers there.

“I’m proud to say, 100 per cent of deliveries reached our clients over that Christmas and New Year period. With that came a cost, but we were happy to support our clients over that period.”

Though all the major arterials in and out of Batemans have since re-opened, ongoing repairs to bridges, guardrails, electrical poles and other infrastructure are still slowing trucks and adding to the cost of logistics.

None of these things, though, are responsible for Nguyen’s supply troubles. The deluge of rain, so good for everyone else, turned out to be the biggest blow to the industry. In their day-to-day operations, oyster farms are regularly compelled to pause harvesting when the NSW Food Authority tells them to, either because the water’s salinity has dropped below the permitted level (allowing pathogens to grow) or because rainfall has exceeded the permitted amount (guaranteeing pollution and harmful run-off). The deluge instantly closed every estuary in NSW – for almost three weeks. This is abnormal.

“It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the entire state close down,” Smith says.

Near Smith’s farm, Steve Feletti of Moonlight Flat produces some of Australia’s finest oysters and sends them to Melbourne restaurants such as Vue de Monde, Supernormal and Cutler & Co. He says that, contrary to fears about ash and resulting algae blooms, the deluge will do some positive things for cultivation – on his farm, anyway. The run-off has lowered salinity dramatically, killing off the wafer worms (leptoplana australis) that prey on oysters. Likewise, it’s inhibited the growth of cunjevoi, a marine plant that attaches to the outside of oysters and takes a lot of work to clean off prior to sale.

“Our business won’t change, and there’s no great economic or commercial reason to see a spike in the market,” Feletti says.

Supply has returned to normal after serious disruptions from November to February. Oyster prices will remain stable in 2020.


Two hours inland from Batemans Bay, the grapegrowers haven’t been so lucky. At least two (and probably many more) of the 20 wineries in the Murrumbateman region have cancelled their 2020 vintage and won’t pick grapes due to smoke taint. Among them is the award-winning 50-year-old winery Clonakilla, renowned for its shiraz viognier.

Fire has damaged several other east coast wine regions, either directly or via smoke taint, including Tumbarumba, Shoalhaven and the Highlands in southern NSW and the Hunter Valley in the state’s north. In Victoria, the King Valley and Alpine Valleys are worst affected. But the losses in these regions pale in significance compared to the Adelaide Hills, where a full third of vineyards were wiped out in December. It’s particularly gut-wrenching given that the Adelaide Hills is the cradle of Australia’s natural-wine movement, and by a lot of measures, the most progressive region we have. The secondary damage from smoke taint remains to be seen.

“It certainly is going to be an issue affecting a percentage of Adelaide Hills grapes this harvest,” says Kerry Treuel, executive officer of the Adelaide Hills Wine Region. “Unfortunately it’s a bit of a waiting game for us now, so I don’t have any exact numbers of the hectares or tonnage that we’re expecting to be down by.”

Back in East Gippsland, four other wineries – Nicholson River, Wyanga Park, Tambo Winery and Sarsfield Estate – have also cancelled vintage due to smoke taint. (You can help bushfire-affected wineries by buying their wines online.) At Nicholson River, founded in 1978 and still run by the same couple, Ken and Juliet Eckersley, spot fires came within 500 metres, while the fire front was two kilometres away.

“The grapes absorb the smoke – it binds up with the sugars inside the grape and just stays there, and gets released when you ferment the wine,” Ken says. He sent his grapes off for testing in mid-February and found they contained 400 parts per billion smoke compounds. That’s 10 times more than the 40 parts per billion said to be detectable by taste after a wine is fermented and bottled.

Just 20 minutes up the road, Lightfoot & Sons Wines escaped the devastation, with a smoke reading of just 18 parts per billion. Even so, says winemaker Tom Lightfoot, the team will be using this year to experiment and take risks in the winery, given the results will probably be less than optimal anyway. “Lots of people will be doing some pretty creative winemaking to mitigate smoke taint this year,” he says.

Wine prices are unlikely to be affected, but wine from the specific wineries and regions mentioned above – the Adelaide Hills particularly – will be harder to get in 2021 and beyond. If and when replacement vineyards are planted, they will take up to three years to bear their first fruit.


As anyone who’s seen Gippsland’s rolling green pastures and plodding herds of cattle could guess, the region is a powerhouse of beef and dairy production. Livestock, wool and grain analysis firm Mecardo estimates that together, Gippsland and north-east Victoria, the two areas of the state hit by fire, are home to 473,000 cattle and 482,000 sheep.

After assessing the two regions in January, Agriculture Victoria concluded that 180 farm buildings were lost to fire, plus 4669 livestock, including 108 dairy cows, 2530 beef cattle and 1618 sheep. Though these numbers are heartbreaking for affected producers, 99.45 per cent of cows and 99.67 per cent of sheep survived.

“We’ve visited Gippsland a couple of times now, to talk to farmers,” says David Jochinke, president of the Victorian Farmers Federation. “There are a lot of people not carrying the full capacity of livestock that they would usually [due to drought]. Which meant, when the fire went through, the losses haven’t been as devastating as they would [be] during a full production year. Having said that, any losses that occurred are a higher percentage of what the farmer was carrying.”

Photography: Gareth Sobey

At the federal level, the situation is much the same, despite the NSW fires being more widespread than Victoria’s and burning for much longer. According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, a total of 11,300 cattle and 70,000 sheep perished across Australia in the 2019–20 bushfires, with the heaviest losses on Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

“While the impacts will be devastating for those producers, in the context of national production, the impact will be limited,” a spokesperson says. “The national cattle herd is estimated to be 24.8 million, and 66.8 million for the sheep flock.” The same source says the bushfires had “low to no” impact on pork, chicken or egg farms.

As in Victoria, though, we shouldn’t be too cheered by these numbers. The national herd is at its lowest point in 30 years, thanks to the current drought and its predecessor, the Millennium Drought (1996–2009). And Australians aren’t the only people who want to eat Australian lamb and beef in 2020. Between August 2018 and August 2019, an outbreak of African swine fever killed an estimated 40 per cent of China’s 348 million pigs. The country’s citizens are hungry for alternative sources of meat, and they’re prepared to pay well. The outbreak of coronavirus is suppressing this demand, but it’s likely to bounce back some time this year.

Matt Dalgleish, one of Mecardo’s analysts, predicts we’ll soon see record prices for lamb and beef, which are currently retailing for $17.56 and $20.64 a kilogram respectively. As with vegetables, restaurants that have direct relationships with smaller livestock farms will be protected from these commodity price rises, although such farms tend to be more expensive in the first place.

At many restaurants beef and lamb will become noticeably more expensive in coming years. Even if the drought breaks soon, it could take a decade to rebuild the national herd to what it was in the ’90s. Pork and chicken prices should remain stable.


While coronavirus is a small bump in the road for livestock farmers, it’s devastated some fishers more quickly than anyone could have predicted. Between 90 and 95 per cent of all Australian-caught rock lobsters (crayfish) are sent to China. Since the start of February this market has all but disappeared, due to domestic travel restrictions and self-quarantine keeping Chinese people at home and no longer visiting restaurants, markets and other public places. The price of fresh Victorian lobster has already dropped from $150 to $100 a kilogram and could fall further, although boats have stopped going out and supply may abruptly come to an end. Likewise, many mud crab and coral trout fishers, who rely heavily on China, are in trouble and selling existing stock at a loss. Now is a good time to buy, both for yourself and to support struggling fishers.

“The industry has been hit with a hat-trick,” says Stephanie Kaparos, CEO of Clamms, a Melbourne-based seafood supplier. “Not only is fish scarce in January, but the bushfires hit and now the coronavirus is playing havoc on local business.

“Traditionally, January is when the fishermen take their well-deserved breaks, repair their boats and equipment and spend quality time with family. Fish is at its most expensive and is very scarce.”

As with vegetables, oysters and livestock, road closures were the biggest issue for seafood suppliers in January and February. Trucks travelling from NSW to Melbourne spent an extra five hours on the road, while the 12-day closure of the Eyre Highway, the only sealed road between Perth and Adelaide, meant distributors had to pay for airfreight at the beginning of January.

While the roads have reopened and the normal supply of farmed and ocean-caught fish has resumed, there are now major concerns about the effect of ash in our lakes, rivers and streams. Oysters benefit from tides washing bushfire run-off out to sea, but too much ash can suffocate freshwater fish.

On February 10, contractors removed 1700 kilograms of dead fish from the Brodribb River, which flows into the Snowy and exits into the ocean near Orbost. In NSW, which copped the brunt of the February deluge, it was estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of fish perished in the Macleay River, a major waterway that stretches for 300 kilometres.

Prices for farmed and ocean-caught fish will remain stable. It’s too early to say, but mass deaths of freshwater fish such as Australian bass and Murray cod may drive up prices. Until the coronavirus outbreak is contained and China reopens, rock lobster (crayfish), mud crab and coral trout will be either affordable or unavailable.