First U.S.-bound Aussie litchi shipment likely this season, says industry rep
The first ever shipment of Australian lithcis to the U.S. market is likely to take place this season, despite export protocols being received a couple of years ago.
"We've had the protocol for about two years now - us and the mango industry were coupled together - but our biggest single issue has been the chemicals registered for us," he said.
"There's a different set of chemicals registered in the U.S. because they've got their own market in Florida, and lining up those chemicals has been the issue."
However, Foley said the problems had been resolved this year. In May, U.S. authorities registered an insecticide that had been used in Australia for mite control, and in early November the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) registered a pesticide called Switch used to combat pepper spot.
"So we’re finally getting there and there’s a very good chance we will get fruit into the U.S. this year with those two aspects tidied up. We live in hope," he said.
All Australian litchi exports are all made via airfreight due to the tropical fruit's high perishability, and the industry has irradiation protocols for the U.S.
In terms of market prospects, Foley said the litchi sector would likely follow along a similar path to the mango industry and build up volumes gradually.
"We’ll start off slowly gauging the reaction. There's lots of negotiating with things like prices - that’s what makes it worthwhile," he said, adding the exchange rate was 'quite favorable' for shippers.
He highlighted there was a lot of enthusiasm in the U.S. for the fruit.
"We have a commercial partner in the Melissa Group, and they know their own home market extremely well and they’re very excited about it, but also a bit frustrated they can’t get any fruit yet," he said.
"They’re of the opinion that this is something worthwhile doing - the mango experience has been pretty good so far - but it’s more the frustration of not getting any fruit that’s upsetting at the moment, so it's quite exciting that it seems it might well happen this year.
"Export markets are always a moving target with exchange rates and what area of the market we can slot into to obtain the price we need, so that aspect’s a bit of a work in process."
Chinese 'mindset change' needed
Like many fruit industries around the world, opening the Chinese market is high up on the Australian litchi sector's priority list, but the two countries are yet to agree on export protocols.
Foley said shippers had been trying to gain access for years.
"At this stage we’re really looking at phytosanitary requirements to be irradiation, which is the protocol we use for U.S and New Zealand. The Chinese are not receptive, but very curious - they keep visiting Australia and looking at facilities," he said.
"It’s a good protocol for litchis. The alternative is things like vapor heat treatment, which is not kind to litchis. They use it, but it’s a bottleneck - you have to do all that before you put it in the carton, so it’s another process.
"We really need to have a change of mindset from the Chinese to use irradiation, so when that happens obviously we can line the ducks up, but we’re not the only commodity waiting for that day to arrive."
Looking at this season, Foley said harvest had already begun in the northern regions and would progressively move further down the country toward New South Wales and run through February.
He said there were 'reasonable expectations' for this season, but weather-related issues had resulted in a light crop in some areas.
"It’s not going to be a record-breaking season. Especially in the wet tropics it’s a bit patchy in as much as we had a fairly warm winter and a fair bit of rain, which is not good for inducing flowers and fruit set. So it's a bit light." he said.
"In the Table Lands as well it’s a bit patchy, but a crop will come out of it alright."
Foley said around 3,000 metric tons (MT) of fruit would likely be produced this year, and around 15% is typically exported. Fruit quality is good, although he said rain in the next few weeks would be ideal.
Labor issues are also of concern to growers, especially given the proposed tax on backpackers who work on Australian farms.
"The backpacker tax is said to be 19%, this has not yet gone through parliament, the opposition is now putting a bill forward to reduce it to 10%. This will no doubt be defeated on party lines," he said.
"The uncertainty of this piece of legislation is of concern to growers, however at this point nothing has actually changed as far as the tax is concerned. Labour shortages should not occur but petty politicking does little for our international reputation."