Australia: Mango growers get closer to Asia with new Darwin-Hong Kong charter flights

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Australia: Mango growers get closer to Asia with new Darwin-Hong Kong charter flights

Mango farmers in Australia's Top End have drastically cut their export supply chain into Asia thanks to new direct flights from Darwin to Hong Kong, and speculation is in the air that their peers in Cairns might do the same.

NT Airports head of aviation development Matthew Finlay tells Fresh Fruit Portal the first shipments with Qantas were sent on August 26 and they have been taking place every Sunday since.

"They might pick a day or so earlier than that to ensure they have the right volumes ready for the consumers who are ultimately purchasing the product, and the good news is it can go straight onto the aircraft on the Sunday and be in the supermarkets or the shops in Hong Kong on Monday or Tuesday," Finlay says.

"You have an airplane virtually flying over Darwin to get to Hong Kong from Sydney, so the question with Qantas in this case was could you literally drop in on Darwin to uplift the tonnage that is available for export markets?

"In partnership with the Northern Territory Government and other stakeholders, we were able to gather together the information necessary for Qantas to understand the market potential that exists."

He adds the process has been lengthy but advocates involved have now been rewarded.

Michael Daysh, agribusiness market development officer at the NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources, says the feedback has been good so far.

"We understand initial shipments that went to a Hong Kong supermarket, as well as Fruit Logistica, were well received and the customer placed repeat orders," says Daysh.

"We are working with other agri-food producers such as melons and seafood but it’s early days," he adds.

Australian Mango Industry Association (AMIA) chief executive Robert Gray mentions air-freight mango shipments have occurred in the past from Darwin to Hong Kong, but only with commercial passenger airlines.

"They haven't been the wide-bodied flights either that allow you to put pallets of fruit underneath. This is the first year that there’s been this designated freight service," he says.

The new service cuts out thousands of kilometers needed to move fruit from north to south and back again en route to Asia. 

"Otherwise you’re having to track it all the way to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne and then fly it from there," he says.

"There’s been some talk about doing something similar into Cairns [near North Queensland growing regions] when the Queensland season starts. 

"My understanding is it’s really a matter of tonnage – if you can commit to enough tonnage, Qantas will divert this service so it takes off in Melbourne or Sydney and will call in at a number of stops so long as there’s enough product to pick up."

Daysh emphasizes the new freighter deal is part of a suite of initiatives the government and industry have been working on to develop market opportunities for the Australian mango industry.

Other projects include continued technical support for the development of the U.S. market, "the largest mango market in the world", and assisting the industry in getting improved maximum residue limits for the widely used fungicide fludioxonil.

But a big one is working with Darwin International Airport on its plans to establish an airfreight hub with capacity for vapor heat treatment (VHT), a protocol requirement for markets including China and South Korea.

"This will be a key piece of infrastructure for the mango industry in coming years," he says. 

Finlay is excited by the prospect of VHT capabilities in Darwin and claims the process is currently underway to get federal funding to build the facility.

"What’s more interesting I think for the overall opportunity for Darwin and the Top End is Donghai Airlines has recently started passenger services from Shenzhen to Darwin," says Finlay, adding the flight only takes about five hours and 20 minutes. 

"The Donghai Airlines services is a passenger service so they have been taking agricultural product direct to Shenzhen. By the end of July I think they’d taken a sum total of 15 [metric] tons (MT), and so that’s a pretty good outcome. 

"Most of it is export – there’s very little import coming into Darwin. I think there’s about 3MT."

He says none of that agricultural cargo bound for Shenzhen has included mangoes, but the industry can look forward for that to change in the future.

On the topic of VHT, Gray says Perfection Fresh has built a new facility in Brisbane that will be able to carry out the treatment.

"It will certainly add capacity. Perfection Fresh are the marketer of the Calypso brand so I think we’d expect to see an increased focus on markets that require VHT for the Calypso program this year, in China and South Korea for example," Gray says.

The Brisbane facility is now the third of its kind for mango VHT in the country, adding to Manbulloo's facility in Ayr and Diamond Star's in Mareeba.

"Both of those facilities will continue to be exporting into Japan, South Korea and China this year. But this is another step up with extra capacity," he says.

Continued education in the US market

What Australia's mangoes lack in volume they've made up for in appeal for U.S. consumers due to their unique flavor and appearance compared to more common varieties in the market.

"The Australian industry will be supplying fruit across to the American market from both the Northern Territory and Queensland again this year across all of the main varieties, and particularly targeting California and Texas," says Gray.

"In relation to the total supply into the US, it’s a very targeted niche marketing program from Australia targeting the very top-end retail outlets with high quality but expensive mangoes by the time they get through all of the processes of achieving the protocols and air-freighting them from Australia to the U.S.

"I would not expect the first shipments to happen until well into October I would think when the real volumes start to come through in the Northern Territory, then through November, December and January."

The U.S. program will continue to be restricted to just a couple of U.S. importers in order to maintain quality standards, and work will continue in educating retailers not just about the Australian varieties themselves, but also the safety of the irradiation processes in the protocol.

"To be honest a large feedback from U.S. retailers has been that a whole range of them initially haven’t wanted to run any Australian mangoes because of that particular issue, and we’ve had to work really hard with them to educate them on that process that it isn’t a risk," Gray says.

"We've gone through retailer by retailer to allay their fears. That’s been part of our marketing strategy, educating people about what irradiation is and why it’s important."

Preliminary crop forecast

Gray and his colleagues at the AMIA have now done both their pre-season meetings in the Northern Territory and North Queensland, having traversed farms over the past five weeks in Kununurra, Katherine, Darwin, Bowen, Ayr and Mareeba.

The verdict is that the Northern Territory might be down somewhat, but a larger crop out of Queensland means the total industry should be in for another bumper crop; perhaps slightly down on last year's record harvest.

"There’s been a mixed flowering, so for example multiple flowerings in each of the regions from early, mid to late. Basically every tree has flowered 100%," he says.

"This year we’ve got some trees flowered in week 1, some flowered in week 4, some flowered in week 12, as an example. Even on the same tree."

This may be positive for the industry, as if all the flowerings occur at the same time in a particular region you get big spikes. With more a varied timing of flowering the season can be spread out a little bit more.

However, fruit drop may be an issue in some areas. 

"There’s a lot of little fruit hanging on trees right across the country at the moment. There is a concern on some of those sets that the fruit has set at a time when temperatures were quite cool and haven’t pollinated properly.

He says that if pollination conditions are either too hot or too cold, the pollen doesn't germinate properly in the flower and a viable seed isn't formed. If that fruit grows up to a certain point without a seed in it, the tree will abort the fruit.

"For a lot of the crop, particularly a lot of the Queensland crop, we haven’t gotten to that point yet," says Gray.

"We were certainly seeing in Bowen a lot of fruit drop happening while we were there, but this sort of thing happens every year."

Gray says last year's large crop was definitely the result of increased plantings of Calypsos, Honey Golds and R2E2's coming into maturity, but this year the driver could be a bit different.

"What we’re expecting this year is quite a lot of the KP (Kensington Pride) trees in Mareeba in particular didn’t have a big crop last year, but are shaping up to being a better crop this year," he says.

"So we’re expecting to at least hold what we did last year across most of the regions, and being up a bit in Mareeba and maybe back a little bit in the Northern Territory just based on the fact of this multiple flowering is meaning not all flowerings are converting to fruit.

"But it’s still early days. At this stage we’re still looking at having a bumper season."

Photo: Aussie Mangoes, via Facebook

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