Cider resurgence a 'shining light' for Aussie apple industry
Australian apple production is looking strong this year with high quality fruit, while New Zealand imports are yet to make their impact and Chinese apples have not been well received by the market. However, should that change Australian growers do not have the strong processing base present in other growing countries to provide an alternative outlet to growers. At www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with industry representatives about the current situation and how growing sales for an alcoholic drink are giving growers a helping hand.
Apple & Pear Growers Association of South Australia executive officer Greg Cramond says "for better or for worse" the industry has shifted its focus locally over the years, with strong domestic demand for the fruit and a high Australian dollar making exports difficult.
"What we saw in South Australia for a while was exports of Pink Ladys when the program was there with Europe, but over time it became a less and less profitable exercise, so we became more focused on the domestic market," he tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"The problem for us is that we have a very high cost of production in Australia, and while we like to think that export is the answer, in the end it’s proven to be a lot of hassle for not a lot of return - it's an exorbitant exercise.
"Our competitors, whether it's New Zealand, Chile, Argentina or South Africa, they have governments that aim to enhance export practices for growers, and that could be as simple as a subsidiary for freight rates, but in Australia we don't have any of these advantages and and that’s not going to change soon."
He says apple production has remained profitable for growers in his state with strong demand, even if prices have not been so great due to large volumes. South Australia may only account for 10% of the country's apples, but the crop is set to be well above average this year.
"In fact we’re exceeding expectations, through a combination of a mild summer and regular rainfall, and so far the size and quality have been good, and of course when the size is up you fill the bins and storages really quickly."
Fruit Growers Tasmania business development manager Lucy Gregg tells www.freshfruitportal.com production in her state is looking good too this year, while a similar trend has been seen with exports.
"The Tasmanian apple industry has undergone some restructuring over the last decade and we’ve seen some growers exit the industry, and some have decided to move to other fruit commodities like cherries, and we have seen growers invest in higher densities and new varieties.
"We’re starting to see production climb again with the high density orchards and there has certainly been more substantial quantities of new varieties like Jazz, Cameo and Eva in Tasmania.
"Tasmania used to be highly focused on exports but it’s been cut back now, although we still have niche markets like Taiwan. We try to maintain our markets while the Australian dollar is high, but you can only do that so long as its financially viable."
Her state mainly focuses on Royal Gala and Pink Lady apples, which she says have both been popular in the market.
"The Australian apple consumer is very discerning and is always looking for positive attributes – it has to be crunchy and have lots of flavor, so we’re seeing older varieties like Red Delicious disappearing off the shelves, while on the market we’re seeing growth at the moment for new varieties."
Industry protests were heated over the approval for New Zealand apple imports last year, but Australia's trans-Tasman neighbors have held the trigger on shipments, resulting in very little effect on the market.
"This will be the second season that New Zealand will have apples from New Zealand and we’ve had the second season for Chinese access - obviously for the effect of this we’ll have to wait and see but at this time the volumes being sent here have not been significant," says Gregg.
"We only have a population of more than 22 million and our apple production already meets that demand, so the potential for exporters the market will be affected by that.
"We also have to consider competition now just with other apple producing countries but with other fruits, for example if there’s a large citrus or grape crop, or bigger kiwifruit imports, than that will affect consumer demand for apples."
Cramond is a bit more blunt when it comes to the local reception for Chinese apples, but is concerned about the impact if New Zealand picks up its volumes.
"We’re seeing some Chinese fruit coming in and not much from New Zealand - the Chinese fruit haven’t been well received by the market and prices are so low I don’t think the importers of Chinese fruit would be making much money, he says.
"Apples are still profitable which I think is really encouraging but it wouldn’t take too many imports for prices to go down to an unsustainable level."
He says if that happens, it is uncertain how much of the industry will still be left in 10 years.
Cider, the processing alternative
In other fruit-growing nations like South Africa, Argentina and Chile, growers have processing options for juice to help soften the blow, but Cramond says options are limited in Australia.
"We have not had the production of processing apples like we have had with fresh in Australia, and 90% of the apple juice in Australia comes from Chinese concentrates - it's been that way for two decades.
"Unfortunately we haven’t had a processing base, which isn’t good for the industry when we’re looking for alternatives."
However an interesting market trend has emerged which, combined with difficult wine markets, has given apple growers a promising outlet.
"In the last three or four ears there has been an interesting upsurge in alcoholic apple cider and a plethora of brands which have been dedicated to sourcing fruit locally, as they like to use that in their marketing.
"We’ve seen the price of juice spike quite high so that’s certainly a shining light for us."
"The wine industry is in a slump and that’s something that’s happening globally, so there are a lot of winemakers who are looking to do something else, and now a lot of them are making cider quite successfully."
Cider processing is certainly not something the industry can rely on, as it looks to new varieties and higher density orchards, but it could bring something positive for growers if the trend continues.
"It could be a fad thing that will fade out after a decade but I hope not, and the market is really starting to make a dent in beer sales."
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