Coronavirus impact on freight has stone fruit growers fearing glut in domestic market

Stone fruit growers across Australia are faced with tough decisions, including potentially having to pull out some of their trees, as the coronavirus pandemic bumps up air freight costs and wreaks havoc on export markets.

Michael Trautwein grows the full range of stone fruit at his orchards in South Australia’s Riverland but fears limited access to air freight and a doubling of costs could put an “excessive financial burden” on growers.

Mr Trautwein said growers were already severely impacted at the end of the 2019/2020 season when the pandemic first hit, forcing market closures and limiting air services.

“It meant we had to sell a lot more fruit to the domestic market and we saw a very significant drop in price across all of the product types,” he said.

Other stone fruits, such as nectarines, will be affected if the domestic market is flooded with white-flesh peaches.(Supplied: Michael Trautwein)

The latest USDA report on Australian stone fruit production is forecasting a 17 per cent decline in exports of peaches and nectarines for the 2020/2021 season.

The report highlights the fact that despite the Federal Government’s International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) program supporting exporters to secure air freight space, freight costs for exporters are more than double pre-COVID levels.

Chinese market demands fast freight

While growers like Mr Trautwein are already changing their strategies by moving more produce onto high waters this season, some varieties, such as white flesh peaches, are simply not suited for weeks at sea.

Typically destined for the lucrative Chinese market, the juicy rounds need to arrive more quickly.

“They have been planted for export which requires air freight,” he said.

Two men inspecting nectarines stored in boxes.
Stone fruit grower Michael Trautwein fears farmers could see some severe financial losses due to the pandemic and trade disruptions.(Supplied: QFM production)

Mr Trautwein said it could lead to a severe oversupply of white peaches on the domestic market in the next few years, affecting prices for other products, including plums, nectarines, and yellow peaches.

“As a grower we have to make considerations, because we know the air freight issue is going to be around until about 2025, that’s the prediction, so we have to find a way on how we are going to deal with the supply of white peaches for the next three to four years,” he said.

White flesh peaches stores in a box.
Labour availability for the upcoming harvest, starting in October, is a major concern for the industry.(Supplied: QFM Production)

CEO of Summerfruit Australia Trevor Ranford said while industry and farmers were closely working with the Government and export partners, they had to look at longer-term options and plans.

Besides the air freight challenges, he highlighted labour availability for the upcoming harvest, starting in October, was a major concern for the industry.

“The reality is that if we don’t have the labour to pick the crop then we will have limited amount to export or to put onto the domestic market,” he said.

Swan Hill fruit association weighs options

Swan Hill Summer Fruit Development Association president and local producer Michael Tripodi has been working with other growers to try and find a cost-effective solution.

“We spoke about getting charter flights in but it’s very expensive and you have to pay for them upfront,” he said.

“The problem is, if there’s a weather event and you can’t fill that charter flight…you still get stung for the freight costs.

stone fruit growing on trees.
Michael Tripodi said if stone fruit arrived in sound condition overseas, then the freight costs would probably be a third compared with air freight.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

“Maybe there will be times when the stone fruit associations around Australia can charter a full plane of stone fruit to get it overseas — that would be fantastic.”

Mr Tripodi said he would send produce by sea if it got to market quick enough.

“I’m working with a couple of people from South Australia in the shipping industry,” he said.

“I’ll be definitely trying it, if the fruit gets there in sound condition then the freight costs will probably be a third compared to air freight.”

A blue ship in a port.
Peter Wahlquist, chairman of Adelaide shipping and tuna fishing company Pelamis Group, said he had been talking to industry about quick transport.(Supplied: Pelamis Group)

Pelamis Group boss: fast ships available

Peter Wahlquist, chairman of Adelaide shipping and tuna fishing company Pelamis Group, said he had been talking to industry about quick transport.

“We have ships running out of South Australia through to Singapore and Asia every second week starting in December,” he said.

“Our ships are quite fast, so it’s an eight-day voyage from Victoria to Singapore, and we have the capacity for around one-and-a-half to two thousand tonnes per voyage.

“Each hull has four different layers in it and each layer can be refrigerated to match whatever the cargo is.”

An assortment of stone plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches and cherries laid out on a table.
Stone fruit produce already saw severe price reductions at the beginning of the year when the pandemic first hit.(ABC Life: Nathan Nankervis)

The COVID-19 pandemic won’t be a problem for the company to transport the highly sought-after stone fruit.

“All of our operations are on the high seas and we don’t generally come into port,” Mr Wahlquist said.

“If we do, it’s the port limit… so we don’t actually have any contamination or COVID problems in that respect.

“However, for this we’d come into Portland (VIC), but the ruling is if your ship has been at sea for 14 days then… you’re classed as being clear.”

Boxes of produce in a shipping container.
Produce must be kept at the right refrigerated temperatures.(Supplied: Pelamis Group)

Once the fruit arrives in Singapore it would easily be transported to its final destination.

“Because we come into a bonded wharf, it’s still classed as technically outside of Singapore,” he said.

“There it will be transferred through to airports to then join existing air freight services to other ports, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.”

Mr Wahlquist said he could see a future with the fruit sector.

“We’re looking to rebuild the broken supply chain,” he said.

“We’re looking at doing this in the long term, not just ‘let’s make a buck out of it because we’ve got a virus problem’.

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Jujube growers find innovative ways to turn waste into sustainable new products

Australian jujube farmers have come up with innovative ways to turn their waste fruit into pantry staples for consumers after battling extreme weather and the coronavirus pandemic.

What was looking like a bumper harvest for South Australian farmer like Ben Waddelow quickly turned into a distant dream.

Not only did rain split and damage some of his fruit, but he was also hit by the pandemic.

“This year with the COVID-19, we had a bit of extra fruit, and it was a little bit harder to sell so it gave us the idea ‘well, we’ve got all this extra fruit we need to do something with it, we can’t just let it fall on the ground’,” Mr Waddelow said.

Ben Waddelow and his dad Bill processing their fruit to turn into jujube vinegar.(ABC Rural Jessica Schremmer)

It was the challenging market climate that encouraged Mr Waddelow and other growers to use their fruit to create bubbling premium brews, including beer.

“We thought we will try and make a vinegar so we can aim for the health food market and for the chefs, which can use it straight over salads, to give it that nice, really fresh but slightly acidic taste,” he said.

It’s a first of its kind in Australia and he hopes it will be embraced by consumers and give farmers a solution to make the industry more sustainable.

Jujubes that are green, yellow and brown in a box.
Farmers are finding ways to turn their marked and damaged jujubes into premium products.(ABC Rural Jessica Schremmer)

Hurdles to industry expansion

Jujubes have been grown for thousands of years in Asia but the small and mysterious fruit only recently gained popularity in Australia.

Mr Waddelow was among the pioneering growers bringing more than 40 different varieties to Australia around two decades ago.

making jujube juice in a basket press.
Farmer Ben Waddelow in the process of making jujube vinegar at his farm shed in South Australia.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

The most common varieties grown in Australia are the Chinese and Indian jujubes also known as ber fruit, often compared to a small apple or date.

“The taste varies from variety to variety, so you get a hit of apple but you get this very unique jujube crunch and an explosion of flavour through the mouth,” Mr Waddelow said.

A grower holding up jujube fruit in his hand.
Jujubes have been grown for thousands of years in Asia but only recently gained popularity in Australia.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

While more farmers are entering the emerging industry, SA Jujube Growers Association President Jody Miltenoff said there were hurdles to the industry’s expansion.

“The major challenges are getting trees and getting the right rootstock,” he said.

From fruit to tangible brew

This also led the Miltenoffs down a brewing path, turning the fruit they had into a jujube beer.

Dried jujube and cake on a table.
Jujubes can be eaten fresh and dried.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

The idea was sparked when son Marcus opened a bucket of soaking wild fresh jujubes on their farm.

“We both looked at each other and thought ‘hang on a minute, how about a beer’ and that’s where the initial concept sort of developed from.”

Finding a brewer to work with the fruit wasn’t easy but the farmers managed to convince Adelaide-based brewer Lewis Maschmedt.

“The first couple of times I ate jujubes I wasn’t convinced that they were going to be very easy to make beer with,” Mr Maschmedt admitted.

Two men standing next to each other with a beer cans in their hands.
Jody and Marcus Miltenoff are excited to see their first commercial brew run come of the production line.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

“But the more I spoke to Marcus and Jody and their passion and believe in the product that they have, it forced me to sit down and have a bit more of a think about it.”

After hours of experimentation, flavour profiling and settling on a porter style beer the first jujube beer was created.

“It wasn’t something that I could type into Google and find a bunch of information like there is with a lot of other ingredients,” Mr Maschmedt said.

The final product brewed confidence in the creative creation.

Beer cans coming of a production line.
The Miltenoff’s innovated a jujube beer.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

Jody and Marcus Miltenoff were excited to see the jujube beer eliminate their wastage and simultaneously provide a new beer to consumers.

“We thought well if we can introduce the fruit into a product that is widely consumed nationally, in terms of the craft beer movement, the jujube would be the perfect companion into a beer, Marcus Miltenoff said.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview. 

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Australia imports most of its cut flowers but growers fear international blooms may breach biosecurity

It’s not unusual for brides inspired by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Megan Markle to spend $150,000 on wedding flowers.

But that yearning for thousands of buds comes at a cost to local flower growers — at least half the flowers sold in Australia come from countries like Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador.

“In the winter months when Australian flowers are very light on, 90 per cent can be imported flowers,” floral designer John Emmanuel Grima said.

He relies heavily on imported blooms, and buys them from Craig Musson, who imports Ecuadorian roses when he’s not breeding, growing and exporting native flowers.

Craig Musson imports Ecuadorian roses to supplement his income, in the months he can’t grow and export native flowers.(ABC: Armin Azad)

Mr Musson said Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador supplied the majority of the world’s roses.

“The number of roses sold in Australia from those three countries may be as high as 90 per cent,” he said.

The international trade, however, has forced smaller growers out of the industry.

“Where we originally had a couple of hundred rose growers, we’re now probably down to about 30 because roses, carnations, chrysanthemums have become the biggest import items into Australia,” New South Wales flower grower Sal Russo said.

A man in an orange vest holds a bouquet of flowers at a market.
New South Wales flower grower Sal Russo and national farm lobby groups fear imported fresh flowers are a biosecurity threat to other agricultural crops.(ABC: Simon Amery)

Waiting for a biosecurity breach

What keeps Mr Russo awake at night is the thought that imported blooms are a ticking biosecurity timebomb.

National farm lobby groups agree.

“To be honest, it’s quite surprising we haven’t had a pest or disease incursion threatening those $27-billion industries already,” said Tyson Cattle from peak body AusVeg and the National Farmer’s Federation’s Horticulture committee.

Data from the Federal Department of Agriculture shows that from September to January, 63 per cent of flowers imported from just one source country arrived carrying foreign pests and diseases.

Between 19 and 41 per cent of imports from three other destinations had similar problems.

Boxes of roses on sale at a market
Imported roses are a popular choice for supermarkets and petrol stations.(ABC Illawarra)

The Department wouldn’t name the individual countries, but industry sources believe the biggest offenders to be Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador and Malaysia.

Acting assistant secretary for agriculture and biosecurity, Peter Creaser, said overall “non-compliance” — where shipments were found to contain pests and diseases — had dropped by 20 per cent, although that recent data was recorded during a period when overall imports fell due to the pandemic.

“We do inspect 100 per cent of all consignments that come into Australia … so when we talk about 25 per cent of non-compliance at the border, it doesn’t mean that those flowers have been released into the environment without any action,” Mr Creaser said.

“They are actually being inspected and then if there are any live pests of concern, we will have those flowers treated here in Australia.”

A bunch of red roses - imported from Kenya.
A bunch of roses imported into Australia from Kenya in time for Valentine’s Day.(Supplied: Kenya Flower Council Facebook)

Exporting countries now have to fumigate flowers before they’re sent to Australia, or be certified by a national plant protection agency.

Anyone wanting to import from Kenya, Colombia or Ecuador needs a special permit.

Mr Russo claims the Federal Government has caved to the lobbying power of cashed-up importers who “think they’re above the law”.

It’s an allegation Mr Musson disputes.

“Australia has the strictest biosecurity regulations bar none, so anybody who’s flouting the laws is going to get caught and prosecuted, as they should,” he said.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.

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Mackay growers dominate Aussie sugarcane production

MACKAY has earned its title as the Sugar City, with a quarter of the nation’s sugarcane harvested in this region last season.

An experimental Australian Bureau of Statistics study found Mackay-Isaac-Whitsunday was Australia’s second largest sugarcane harvest area behind the Townsville region.

The ABS reported 7.7 million tonnes of sugarcane was produced in the greater Mackay region in the 2019-20 financial year.

It was the first time the ABS had created such data to produce an earlier than usual overview of cane yields, Agricultural Statistical Solutions director Rob Walter said.

The data sets were created in collaboration with Queensland and Federal agriculture departments, and industry groups like Sugar Research Australia and the Australian Sugar Milling Council.

Read more:

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Water prices frozen to help growers survive pandemic

Squatter dope farmers targeting cane paddocks

John Deguara was one of many Eton growers to push the region to become the nation’s fourth largest cane producing area in 2019-20. Photo: Zizi Averill

Walkerston-Eton growers had a bumper harvest, producing more cane than in the entirety of New South Wales – 2.1 million tonnes, ABS said.

John Deguara was one of many Eton growers who pushed the region to become the nation’s fourth largest cane producing area, behind Burdekin, Ingham and Tully.

“The crop is looking very good. And I’ve got the electricity bills and water bills to prove it,” he joked.

Like many growers, Mr Deguara said he was facing high production costs amid low global sugar prices.

But the 61-year-old grower said that did not diminish his optimism for the industry.

“Agriculture is not a year-by-year business, so you don’t make business decisions year by year,” he said.

“When people say farming is a lifestyle, it’s not. It’s hard work and hard business.

“If you aren’t optimistic about the industry, why stay in it?”

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While growers were facing tough conditions, Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said the ABS data under underscored the importance of the sector to the region. Photo: Zizi Averill

While growers were facing tough conditions, Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said the ABS data under underscored the importance of the sector to the region. Photo: Zizi Averill

While growers were facing tough conditions, Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said the ABS data under underscored the importance of the sector to the region.

“Sugar has been the backbone of this town,” he said

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but in the end sugar is the one that always brings the economy home.”

Greater Whitsunday Alliance chief executive officer Kylie Porter said sugar would allow Mackay’s economy to blossom.

Greater Whitsunday Alliance chief executive officer Kylie Porter said sugar would allow Mackay’s economy to blossom.

Greater Whitsunday Alliance chief executive officer Kylie Porter said cane would allow Mackay’s economy to blossom.

“This region is a bio-futures hotspot,” Ms Porter said.

The industry was exploring how to “value add” to the sugar product, through biofuels and biochemical production.

“It’s a really exciting time now for the sugar industry,” Ms Porter said.

“We can embrace some concept to produce sugar cane not just to produce sugar.”

Top cane producing regions

Provided by the ABS, ‘Sugarcane, experimental regional estimates using new data sources and methods, 2019-20’.

Mackay Sugar growers:

Walkerston-Eton: 2.1 million tonnes

Pioneer Valley: 1.4 million tonnes

Seaforth-Calen: 1.2 million tonnes

Mount Pleasant – Glenella: 155,800 tonnes

Ooralea – Bakers Creek: 123,200 tonnes

West Mackay: 4700 tonnes

Wilmar Proserpine Mill growers

Proserpine: 1.3 million tonnes

Airlie-Whitsundays: 26,700 tonnes

Wilmar Plane Creek Mill growers

Sarina: 920,400 tonnes.

Broadsound – Nebo: 371,000 tonnes


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