Seeka Australia: Kiwifruit conditions “not too dissimilar to New Zealand”

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Seeka Australia: Kiwifruit conditions “not too dissimilar to New Zealand”

The country’s high sunshine hours mean “you get high dry matter without trying”, according to Seeka Australia operations manager Ryan Donovan, but securing a steady water supply for irrigation is critical. In this two-part series we take a look at some interesting developments in Australia for kiwifruit, a crop long associated with its neighbor across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand.

New Zealand’s leading kiwifruit grower Seeka Ltd (NZX: SEK) has made significant inroads into the Australian market since the purchase of Bunbartha Fruit Packers in Shepparton, Victoria for AUD$22 million in August, 2015. 

The acquisition made Seeka the largest kiwifruit producer in Australia as well with a harvest of 656,000 tray equivalents in 2016, but this is miniscule compared to the 32.4 million trays of New Zealand kiwifruit processed last year. 

"We’ve got plenty of land that we are developing and the product that we’re growing is great, so at the moment we’re quite happy with where we are," Seeka Australia operations manager Ryan Donovan. 

Photo: Seeka Australia's Facebook page.

Of the 505 hectares included in the Bunbartha deal, he says around 100 hectares are dedicated to green kiwifruit, 150 hectares are dedicated to Nashi and European pears, and the rest is "bare land still to be developed".

"With the green kiwifruit the production levels are significantly up this year. Now in our second year we’re going to about 3,120 [metric] tons (MT) of kiwifruit which is a record for the place," he says.

"We've really been focused on filling up the gaps in the canopy that we currently have and now we’re looking at some new development."

In addition to the green kiwifruit the company has also been trialing new varieties on 10 hectares, but Donovan is reluctant to discuss which cultivars could be the most prospective for further plantings.

"We'll get our first commercial crops of that [new variety] fruit next year, but no decision has been made with which varieties to go forward with," he says.

"Our core at the moment is the Hayward variety."

Comparing to New Zealand conditions

Donovan says he's grown kiwifruit in six different countries and every one is different. In the case of Australia, picking starts two to three weeks before New Zealand, and there are certain benefits to be capitalized on if orchards are managed correctly.

"Australia has got very high sunshine hours, so we can get some very hot days over 40°C (104°F)," he says.

"It doesn’t rain a lot during the summer so irrigation is critical; we can irrigate basically every day, all summer. 

"Having said that, because of the high sunshine hours we get superb taste and eating quality; you get high dry matter fruit without trying."

Growers do however have to be careful with Australia's summers which can be "quite fierce", Donovan says.

"You have to get the loading on the vine and everything right from the start; you don’t have the opportunity of catching back up. Again it just comes down to that hot summer irrigation management.

"We’re certainly capable of growing kiwifruit here. The Australian market is very colloquial, they’ll support their own fruit – we also obviously have an export program. 

Photo: Seeka Australia's Facebook page.

"We have a heavy demand for export but market access is difficult out of Australia because kiwifruit obviously is a minor crop in Australia compared to say apples or pears. We certainly do have some markets and hope to open up others."

He says Seeka has continued with Bunbartha's previous kiwifruit export deal to the European Union, and has also shipped product to Hong Kong and Singapore.

"Obviously China, Japan and Korea would be key markets for us but they are closed because of market access currently.

"Bunbartha Fruit Packers was already exporting to the EU prior to us coming, so it’s been quite a longstanding relationship," he says, adding this fruit is now however exported with the Seeka brand.

Compared to other countries where Donovan has lived and worked with kiwifruit, such as Japan and South Korea, he says the fruit is not as "famous" amongst consumers.

"I spent quite a lot of time living there [in East Asia] and certainly I would say they eat more kiwifruit than the average Australian. 

"Having said that, I feel this year’s been quite strong in terms of our sales. It’s a fruit that’s growing in popularity."

Stay tuned for the second part of this series where we explore the potential of a relatively undeveloped Australian kiwifruit-growing region.

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