Early signs indicate "biggest year ever" for Aussie cherries
"It could be an absolute monster," says Cherry Growers Australia (CGA) CEO Tom Eastlake.
After the good news that Vietnam will be improving its import protocols for Australian cherries ahead of the 2017-18 season, preliminary crop forecasts are looking very positive too.
Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal, CGA CEO Tom Eastlake said weather challenges meant last season yielded the "smallest crop in memory", dropping from the usual 15,000 metric tons (MT) down to around 9,000MT.
"There wasn’t a single region that escaped the effect of the weather so we had a massive decline in production figures last year," he said.
The situation now could not be more different.
"It’ll probably be a bit understated to say we’ll have a massive rebound, because we will almost certainly double our numbers," Eastlake said.
"We know how many additional plantings there are, and it’s a lot. There are more trees in the ground in Australia than there ever has been before – the budding and preliminary numbers that people are forecasting look to be probably the biggest on record.
"We could easily see numbers from last year double, which should be a 20% gain on our biggest year ever. That would be well within play and it could be beyond that."
However, he emphasized it was still too early to tell exactly how the crop would go as orchards hadn't blossomed yet in any region.
"But once we get to shuck fall across growing regions we’ll have a bit more of an understanding of what people are looking at," he says, adding the increases should be seen across the board but with the biggest gains expected in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.
And if current weather conditions continue, Eastlake believed it was possible the forecast could go even higher.
"The reports are budding looks good, we’ve got a dry harvest across all production regions...it's very dry now and that’s not looking to change until next year," he said.
"If nobody gets rubbed out with rain, we’ll have good quality. Good quality means less wastage which means more ends up in the box, which means you could see a 20% lift just in a lack of production areas being knocked out with adverse weather damage, and that’s without factoring in additional plantings.
"So it could be an absolute monster. Then we’re going to have difficulty in moving volume so we’ll have to see how that goes."
New protocols with Vietnam
The full details of the new export arrangement with Vietnam - following the announcement of Australian market access for Vietnamese dragon fruit - are yet to be released but the industry response has been positive.
"We’ve seen the draft and we hope that is what has been signed," Eastlake said.
The draft entailed irradiation treatment, cold disinfestation in the sea freight protocol, as well as pest-free area (PFA) designations for Tasmania as well as Riverland on the mainland.
"Vietnam was a building market for us until it closed in 2015 and we’ve unfortunately been on the outer looking in - we've seen the success of the Australian table grape industry with their access reestablished," he said.
"Citrus and table grapes have had enormous success over the last few years trading into Vietnam and we haven’t been able to participate. We can see how that market is advancing and we’re very glad to be part of it again.
"If we get the protocol as stated in the draft it’s going to be immensely positive for us."
He said other markets where the industry was looking for improved market access included Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, the U.S. and the Philippines.
"We're working on a lot of markets. We're seeing progression in some of them, others not, but the principle focus of the cherry industry in Australia is that Vietnam was an access that all segments of industry needed; Tasmania didn’t have access, mainland didn’t have access.
"But for other markets where Tasmania has access with workable airfreight protocols, the mainland industry does not."
Improving mainland growers' circumstances
This last point is a big deal for the Australian cherry industry, which Eastlake refers to as a "tale of two cities".
"So we can see what’s possible in those markets by the success the Tasmanian industry is having, which is wonderful, but need to get access improved.
He said this preferential situation for Tasmania meant part of the industry was "making more money than anyone has in cherries before", while 75% was on the outer.
"It's the same industry, growers using the same practice in the same country, but they’re [Tasmanians] making up to AUD$10 a kilo more on average across the season than the mainland guys are.
"It’s tough, because the mainland guys are struggling to keep afloat in some seasons, leaving fruit behind because it’s not viable to pick, and then watching the other guys export their whole crop and there’s more demand than they could ever satisfy.
"I'd say 90% of my time is market improvement work, and it’s very much a tale of two cities the cherry industry. It’s different to citrus which got their market access and is doing extremely well. It's different to table grapes that got market access and are doing extremely well; in cherries, a quarter of the industry’s doing very well."