Cherry Growers Australia (CGA) CEO Simon Boughey says export records have been “smashed” across a wide range of markets this season, and believes shipments could grow further if more access protocols are achieved for the country’s mainland growers.
In the campaign to the end of January, Fresh Intelligence analysis shows exports were up 63% at 5,458 metric tons (MT), and Boughey thinks the final figure could surpass the 6,000MT mark.
“While we’ve tended to focus on the Asian markets – particularly getting back into those markets like Thailand and Taiwan, and getting better airfreight into China – we’ve been recommending our growers also look across protocol and non-protocol markets,” Boughey tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
The industry saw substantial increases to protocol markets for the period including China (+174%), Taiwan (+107%), South Korea (+41%) and Thailand (+95%), but non protocol markets also saw big rises, such as leading receiver Hong Kong (+45%), Singapore (+34%), the UAE (+168%) and Saudi Arabia (+231%).
“You can see the benefit of the protocol markets because out of the 800 (metric) tons that went into China 700 came from Tasmania, and most of the fruit that went into Taiwan, Thailand and Korea would have come out of Tasmania,” Boughey says.
“If that’s the case and those countries are wanting our fruit four three to four months, we’ve got to get market improvement.
“We could probably double the amount into each of those countries just if we had access from areas like New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, because the demand is there for three to four months of the season.”
Tasmania has this privilege over the mainland states because of its recognition as fruit fly-free, and while some specific regions on the mainland can make the same claim the core focus at the moment is getting workable pest treatment protocols in place to gain the favor of more government authorities overseas.
These treatment methods are varied, but one that has particularly shined this year is irradiation, with fruit sterilized at the Steritech plant in Brisbane, Queensland.
“With Thailand we’re just waiting for them to expand their allowance of irradiated product so we can work on that,” Boughey says.
“The Indonesian market was quite strong this year and we’ve actually sent fruit in there using irradiation for the first time, so the industry is quite keen to drive that as an option for them to get into those markets,” he says, adding the country’s imports of Australian cherries grew 83% to 87MT.
“It’s just an easier process. When it lands in the country they know it’s been treated, there are no issues for fruit flies or other insects. They’ve all been sterilized and off they go.
“There are also a lot of small countries with new volume received. There was a really good pick-up in the Middle East, and also we’ve got better access into the Middle East now too with better airline routes.”
The leading market continues to be Hong Kong with 2,177MT for the period, and Boughey is sceptical about claims the hub is merely a go-through point for produce into the gray market.
“The Chinese have certainly cracked down on cross-border crossings of fruit from Hong Kong, and also a lot of that fruit in Hong Kong could be re-packed and sent on to other non-protocol markets,” he says.
“Hong Kong is such a transitory type of area, everyone assumes it’s all going through the gray trade, but I’ve said to them that I don’t think that’s the issue. Hong Kong itself has got a population of seven million so that’s a pretty big market anyway.”
As a result, Boughey says fruit exporters need to start thinking of Hong Kong more as a market in and of itself instead of a gateway to the Chinese mainland.
“The Americans do that very well – I’ve talked to people there who only buy the top quality export fruit because they’re only dealing with the top quality hotels or airlines, that type of stuff,” he adds.
“If you average the roughly 2,000MT [cherries shipped] over three months, that’s around 700MT a month, a few hundred tons a week – that’s not a lot when you’re going into a market of that size.”
Boughey says there are several factors driving the higher volumes to the Asian market this year, including the region’s growing middle class with more purchasing power, a more favorable Australian dollar, and the effects of less Chilean market due to the South American country’s weather challenges.
“The global importers now are all very attuned to differences in the market, so as soon as they knew there were issues in relation to the Chilean market they would have gone in and looked at our fruit, New Zealand fruit, Argentinean fruit, or from wherever.
“The dollar has helped, but also our price average is still very high so I think it’s the quality of the fruit too.
“If you go into countries like the Philippines there are five different levels of sale points for cherries over there, from US$20 a kilo down to US$10, and I think there’s a real process going on that importers can target particular markets for different price points.”
He says the Australian domestic market is increasing for cherries as well, with per capita consumption on the rise.
“There’s been a really good push by the supermarkets, particularly Coles, Woolworths and Harris Farm (online retailer). They’ve gone into packaging like weight bags, so instead of scouring through the cherries you just bag them – it’s much more convenience, they’ve also gone to 1kg gift boxes,” he says.
“The other thing that’s happening is there are a lot of farm gate sales happening as well, so you have a lot of factors that are very good.”
A big topic in the global fruit industry right now is food waste, and when asked about the issue Boughey says the Australian cherry industry continues to seek out ways to make the most of any sub-par fruit.
“Let’s say for instance our packout rates are 75%. With a lot of the new infrared technology coming in, the next 20% is being used for value adding.
“In some ways we’re actually lucky in the cherry industry in that we can’t sell ugly fruit – it just doesn’t really work in the market.
“People are value adding by putting them into juices, pastes, ice creams, yogurts, we’ve even had calls from a company asking for things like cherry powder, so our actual wastage would probably be the last 5%, which is very badly split fruit that’s probably got brown rot and can’t be used anyway.”
He cites one example of a grower that made 50,000 liters of cherry juice from fruit that couldn’t be sold fresh, and the juice sold out.
“So we’ve actually been very strong in saying to our industry is, ‘if they can’t eat it fresh look at how it can be used’,” he says, adding boutique beer brewers have also shown interest.