by Eliza Goetze
"THERE goes the new ute," Michael Prichard sighs.
Last year he and son Ben, of Mr B Fresh, found themselves leading a battle on behalf of farmers left unpaid by produce agents at the Melbourne markets.
The vegetable growers say they have yet again been hung out to dry, this time by a different seller at the Sydney markets.
Ben said Aussie Growers Pty Ltd had left them $30,000 out of pocket, owing them for eight consignments of sweet potatoes sent between November and December 2015.
After their poor experiences with other traders, it was a short relationship that quickly turned sour.
"It was only a 2- or 3-month ordeal," Ben Prichard said.
"We started sending to them and they paid a couple of times and that was it."
Mr B Fresh has been engaged in a drawn-out court battle since May 2016 in an effort to get the money back.
Mr Prichard said Aussie Growers made several offers of payment plans, but each time failed to fully deliver.
On March 8, they made an offer for an initial payment of $4000 and then weekly payments of $1500 thereafter "until the debt is paid in full".
But after previous failures, the Bundy farmer was sceptical.
"I thought, 'Bugger you, I can't trust anything you say'," he said.
The NewsMail made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Aussie Growers.
A court order to send Aussie Growers Pty Ltd into liquidation was made on May 26 and a liquidator was appointed on May 29.
Since then, according to ASIC records, there have been two dismissals of the application for winding up, on June 5 and 7.
"Our first attempt to take Aussie Growers to court was difficult due to other legal proceedings currently underway against them," Mr Prichard said.
"We had to come up with $800 per court appearance to join the end of the queue with the other companies suing them.
"It has been a drawn out process getting to where we are today.
"I believe the system really needs an overhaul and should closely resemble the US system where farmers are paid within 10 days."
Mr Prichard spoke out last year on behalf of more than eight other sweet potato growers in the Bundaberg region alone who collectively were owed millions by a number of agents at the Melbourne produce markets.
ACCC agriculture commissioner Mick Keogh visited Bundaberg after the NewsMail's investigation and an overhaul of the Horticulture Code of Conduct was brought in by the ACCC in April.
Mr B Fresh was owed $283,000 by E&R Produce, which has since gone into liquidation, and the Prichards did not get the money back.
But they may get to keep their ute yet.