Imported fruit hurts local grape producer
WITH production costs up due to the drought, a Central Queensland grape producer is finding it hard to compete against imported fruit.
Paul Wortley manages the 400 hectare section of Evergreen Farms where they grow Menindee Seedless and Flame Seedless grapes.
It’s part of a 5000ha aggregation at Emerald, described as one of Australia’s largest horticultural operations, which also includes 29ha of lychees.
They supply their produce to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA.
“We’ve noticed our sales have taken off very slowly, whereas in the past the demand would have been higher,” he said.
“It does hurt, but you can’t blame the consumer, a large portion of people have to shop for what funds they have available and if that means buying cheaper imported fruit, that’s just a fact of life, we can’t do anything about it.
“We dearly wish we could grow produce at a cheaper cost, if labour and electricity were cheaper.
“And being an early (picking) area, we cannot compete with later areas in production levels.
“Because we have higher costs, we need a higher return for our fruit.”
Mr Wortley said they run a lean operation with the price of electricity hitting their hip-pocket.
“We’ve recently upgraded our pumping stations to try and reduce costs,” he said.
“Unfortunately, irrigation is one of those areas where there’s not a lot to be saved, regardless of the system, it costs a certain amount of money to get water onto the plants.
“With the upgrade we are trying to reduce the impact on peak demands, which affects the tariffs, so by doing that we’re hoping to avoid the next big price hike.”
Mr Wortley said he enjoyed the challenge that came with growing in a hotter climate.
“We normally have a warmer winter than the places where grapes are traditionally grown,” he said.
“Like many other fruits they need a certain amount of chilling in the winter and a bit of frost to release bugs from dormancy.
“The advantage of a late winter is early maturity and accelerated spring growth.”
He said the dry conditions also had an impact on the grapevines.
“When there’s a lot of wind we can find a bit of scarring on the grapes,” he said.
“This year we have had to irrigate a lot more as well which costs us more in production.
“We usually have quite a good crop, but with the conditions, it’s looking about average.”
Mr Wortley said the lychees are all hand-picked.
“On average we pick approximately 30 kilograms per tree, but it can vary between 20 or 45 and that comes from 6000 trees,” he said.
Unlike the grapes, he said there isn’t a great deal of competition.
“They aren’t a fruit that exports particularly well so we don’t really have to worry about imported lychees,” he said.
Mr Wortley said the lychees were also an easy crop to look after, with the current crop in the ground for 15 years.
“They get pruned every year after picking, we do orchard floor management by keeping the weeds under control,” he said.
“They don’t have a high demand for fertiliser or pesticides.
“They took about four years of growing to get reasonable production out of them.
“I think the life of a tree is determined by the demand for the variety, which comes down to eating pleasure.
“Some of the fruit have very large seeds, so people might want a smaller one for more flesh, it makes them more appealing to eat.”
STAYING POSITIVE: Evergreen Farms manager Paul Wortley said he is feeling good about the 2018 grape season. PHOTO: CONTRIBUTED