"Non-stop" rains make mark on NZ cherry exports
"I can tell you one thing, I've never seen the trees look healthier," says Summerfruit NZ chairman Gary Bennetts, speaking from New Zealand's key cherry export region of Central Otago.
The reason is persistent rain that has affected the country since Dec. 21, but Bennetts says the combination of rain and wind has diminished expectations for fruit volume this season.
"It started out with quite a heavy, cold rain which didn’t do too much damage, but we’ve just had little periods of rain non-stop since, with each period adding a little bit to the damage," he says.
"As an industry we were looking at having 3,000 [metric] tons (MT) of export, but we're probably going to be lucky to get what we did last year - roughly 1,460MT - and last year wasn't a particularly good year for us either.
"What happens when the sugar levels get up in the cherries, they can’t absorb that osmosis, so they just draw the water into the fruit and the skin cracks."
He says only so much can be done to protect orchards in the types of conditions witnessed by New Zealand's growers this year.
"Some growers have got rain covers but when we get the winds we’ve had, you have to realize they are pretty big covers...while they're all right in a light, drizzly day, when you get a cold, windy period coming through, you need a really strong structure to protect your crop."
He estimates the export crop was likely two thirds of its way through the season as of Sunday, with the vast majority of fruit sent by air.
"The Chinese New Year window is really the high season for cherries because it's part of their culture of giving at that time of year, and they’re big eaters of fruit as well.
"We aim for the higher end of the market, and we need to do that to get the return to make it viable; our cost structures are higher than some of the countries we compete against such as Chile."
He says it is hard to judge the impact of tariff reductions in Taiwan, given the shortage in supply not just from New Zealand, but other countries like Australia and Chile.
"We’re not seeing a drop off in the prices. Normally the season starts out at a reasonable, favorable price and then it gets tighter and tighter. We're not seeing that same situation evolve this year.
"There’s demand coming up for the new year that’s just not going to be able to be met I think."
However, Bennetts laments that the higher prices won't be able to offset the financial impacts of weather issues.
"I’d sooner have 90% of the crop and have a couple of dollars less a kilo than to have nothing and a couple of dollars more a kilo. But for those who haven’t been that affected it’ll be a good year."
He says a lot of the affected fruit won't make it to market in New Zealand either.
"There there are people that maybe will sell the fruit on the side of the road or on the streets, but a lot of the fruit is dumped and some of it is processed.
"The difference we're talking about here is a slight split or a dried up crack on the cherry, so there's still a market for that, but there's a lot of fruit that won’t be harvested or hasn't been harvested, and there's a lot of fruit that has been harvested that will be dumped."
Apricot volumes buck the trend
Bennetts says while apricot growers have suffered from the same conditions, the export crop will likely be up 10-15% at 1,700MT.
"The rain and wind we've had have had an impact on the cosmetics of the apricots as well; minor cracking in the stem end, minor browning with the rain marking.
"We’re just fortunate that alongside the apricot industry we have a processing industry that can take that product, because it's only cosmetic."
The expected rise bucks the trend of declining apricot production in recent years, which Bennetts attributes to a couple of reasons.
"It's probably the gap in the market. In New Zealand we export a lot of apricots into Australia, and the Australian crop has probably shortened up a little bit."
He adds that the industry is also breeding apricot varieties with "some exciting new flavors and tastes" that are undergoing trials.
"The industry is keen on getting flavor profile for the Asian palate."