Leading Aussie banana grower adopts avocados to offset TR4 risk

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Leading Aussie banana grower adopts avocados to offset TR4 risk

“We definitely cannot grow the Hass [avocado] up there,” says Leon Collins about Lakeland in tropical North Queensland, just inland from Cooktown.

This is unfortunate as chain stores are asking for Hass fruit from his region in a bid to close a gap between domestic seasons normally filled by Shepard avocados, which incidentally grow very well there.

The grower, who heads up L & R Collins and produces bananas on over 1,100 acres, has wanted to spread his risk since the deadly fungus Panama Disease Tropical Race IV (TR4) was first detected in the state in 2015.

But while Hass avocados have not proven suitable for the area, Collins may have found something else that will do the trick - Maluma, a cultivar licensed by Allesbeste Nursery in South Africa.

According to Allesbeste founder Dr. Andre Ernst, Costa Group (ASX: CGC) and Dimbulah-based DBC Farming have formed a "beautiful alliance" to develop the variety, and other growers have taken notice.

Maluma is larger than Hass on average and has outshone it in many taste trials as well, but appearance-wise its shape is indistinguishable from the more common variety. 

The team at Allesbeste, as well as their partners in Peru and elsewhere, have also found it has more uniform black coloring, which means consumers can be more certain when it's ripe rather than relying so much on touch.

In addition, it has faster respiration which means if it is cooled soon after harvest - an absolutely essential practice or else it is at risk of developing pink vascular staining -  it will actually mature faster when taken out of cold stores and interestingly, tends to have a longer shelf life than Hass in the refrigerator at home.

But it is perhaps the cultivar's heat tolerance that most appeals to Collins.

"We’re growing in a new area up there – it’s called Lakeland. There’s Maluma grown in Dimbulah, and we’re about another 200km (124mi) north," he says. 

"We don’t get much of a winter up there – you might get one morning where it may get down to about 10°C (50°F), but by 7:30am it’s up to 24-25°C (75-77°F),"

He says most of the year temperatures get up to 40-42°C (104-108°F) with a dry heat, and production-wise the area has "rich red volcanic soil" and limited water, although Maluma avocados won't need as much water as the company's mainstay banana crop. 

"We did put a trial block of Malumas in with 130 trees two years ago – they performed very well. So now we’ve gone to make the decision – this winter we’re planting 10,000 trees," he says, adding if that goes well a further 10,000 could be planted in 2019.

"The promising thing with Maluma which is very good that I’ve seen, is that most of the fruit sets in under the skirt or the edging of the tree. 

"Therefore sunburn is limited – the sun actually can’t penetrate the foliage to get to the fruit, which is a big plus for it as well."

He says his Malumas will compete with the Shepard window in the Australian market.

"That’s what we’re looking for...if we can get a Hass-type variety in the window of the greenskins, it’s a winner, you can't go wrong.

"The Australian market is after a Hass-type avocado 12 months of the year but now they can only get it nine months of the year.

"Australia does import from only one country which is New Zealand, and it’s on the tail end of their season too which is supplying the three months that we can’t have in Australia."

One of the eye-catchers for delegates attending last week's 'Maluma Day' organized by Allesbeste was the company's trials with trellising the Maluma avocados, which may lend themselves to the practice due to the willowing nature of their branches; the same droopiness Collins refers to that protects fruit from sunburn.

For the most part Collins plans to start his plantings in a more conventional style with high density, but he will also likely experiment with some of the trellising ideas put forth by the nursery.

"I intend to put in a few lines of them [trellises] – we’ve got a few plantings now already anyway. I just don’t know how high to go – probably I’m looking at round about the 800 trees to the hectare.

"For the field plantings I’ve got at the moment on the nursery site it's planted at 550 to the hectare, but I reckon we can pack them in a bit more."

Graham Anderson, a nurseryman who heads up Anderson Horticulture in Duranbah, New South Wales, is upbeat about the prospects for Collins and other growers in north Queensland with Maluma. And in a few years' time he expects the variety will dominate in terms of new plantings.

"We can do at the present time 200,000 trees, and I’m just not sure how many of those will be Maluma - I would imagine that in a few years it’ll be more than 50% - Hass will drop down. It [Maluma] is a better fruit than Hass," he says.

A bold call, but Anderson emphasizes it's not just his opinion.

"It’s coming out of the European trials, from everybody over there who’s used it - especially with the ripe-and-ready," he says.

"The restaurants won’t go back to Hass unless they have to – they would stay on Maluma. They’re finding it better.

"It’s a prettier fruit inside. The color of the flesh looks better than Hass – it’s greener around the skin."

Anderson has known Ernst for around 40 years since he visited South Africa on a Churchill Fellowship.

"Just recently, about two years ago, I heard about Maluma. One of my customers up in the northern part of Queensland (not Collins) wanted to grow it and said it seemed to be a good cross-pollinator for Shepard which was the most popular variety up there," he says.

"I got the license to grow it, I got the intellectual property right to grow it. Then I realized there is so much land up in north Queensland…I visited them and they’re ready to plant.

"Now that we’ve got Maluma it is the perfect fruit for those hot areas because the fruit is inside the tree to protect it from sunburn – it’s a semi-dwarf and you can keep it pruned to any size you want."

The buck doesn't stop there however. During frosts in some of the higher altitude parts of Tzaneen, the Allesbeste team has found the internal fruit quality has fared better than Hass - this makes it something of a hardier fruit in extremes, at least so far in the South African context.

"It’s going to keep spreading but this [northern Queensland] is where we’ll start," he says. 

"And as it gets more popular we’ll move it down to the other areas. I’m supplying some of the colder areas like Western Australia – I’ve got some trials over there, and from what I’ve seen here they’re going to go well.

"When you go down to Robina, and into Victoria, South Australia, they’ve got real problems with frost and this could be just ideal for them."

Anderson says he is more excited than ever with this variety, and he'll also be relaying lessons from the visit - not just trellising techniques but other orchard management practices as well - to his clients once he gets back to Australia.

"I think it’s going to be beneficial for our whole industry and I’m really looking forward to taking it back to them," he says.

Related stories: Photo Gallery: Maluma Day avocado field visit

South Africa: Avocado auction shows exorbitant demand for Maluma trees

South Africa: Maluma Day to challenge avocado sector's "convenient" position

South Africa: Maluma avocado holds up well under drought pressures





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