Grower co-op­er­a­tion the key

Is navels’ fu­ture sweet or sour?

The Orchardist - - News - Story and pho­tos by Kristine Walsh

Many Gis­borne navel orange grow­ers are barely break­ing even and for pro­duc­ers of a world-class prod­uct, that is not good enough, Nick Pol­lock be­lieves.

What to do about it is the sub­ject of his re­port, The Fu­ture of Gis­borne Navel or­anges: Sweet or Sour?, writ­ten as part of the Kel­logg Ru­ral Lead­er­ship Pro­gramme he re­cently com­pleted. It looks at Gis­borne navel orange pro­duc­tion, ex­plores why pro­duc­tion fails to de­liver rea­son­able re­turns and presents a cou­ple of op­tions for im­prove­ment.

Though the sub­ject mat­ter is close to his heart Nick has only a few orange trees on his own or­chard at Muri­wai, 30 kilo­me­tres south of Gis­borne. Nor does his em­ployer, Leader­brand, grow them.

So why navels?

“I've worked with navels be­fore and they're a fan­tas­tic prod­uct that Gis­borne does bet­ter than any­where else in the world,” he said.

“But we’re in a sit­u­a­tion where they’re fail­ing to pro­vide de­cent re­turns so grow­ers are look­ing to other prod­uct cat­e­gories, and I think we need to do some­thing to ar­rest that.”

And he be­lieves his find­ings can also be ap­plied to other pri­mary prod­ucts such a range of fruit, tim­ber and wool.

“Over the years they've all faced chal­lenges around re­turns,” he said. “Some­times the old way of work­ing just doesn't work any more and we need to be open to change.”

For Nick work­ing the land is in his blood, as from the 1960s un­til the early 1980s his fa­ther, Paul, was a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist in Gis­borne. Nick stud­ied land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture but af­ter fin­ish­ing was keen to hit the work­force run­ning, so used the hor­ti­cul­ture com­po­nent of his de­gree to get into the in­dus­try.These days he’s a farm pro­duc­tion man­ager, deal­ing mainly with sweet­corn and maize, for Leader­brand, with added re­spon­si­bil­ity around farm en­vi­ron­ment and ir­ri­ga­tion plans.

“The com­pany sup­ported me into the Kel­logg schol­ar­ship be­cause they knew it would bring ben­e­fits wider than the core sub­ject I was ex­plor­ing,” he said.

“And I got some real in­sight by sit­ting down and talk­ing with [found­ing di­rec­tor] Mur­ray McPhail about the ap­proaches that had worked for Leader­brand, and how that might be ap­plied in other prod­uct sec­tors.” A key point Nick makes in his re­port is the mar­ket weak­ness cre­ated with a num­ber of grow­ers all work­ing in­de­pen­dently. There’s strength in vol­ume and smaller grow­ers may have to band to­gether to achieve that, he said.

“Leader­brand works to a ver­ti­cal­ly­in­te­grated model to try to get 50 per­cent of vol­umes into su­per­mar­kets, which means they are in a po­si­tion to sit down with buy­ers and work out a fair deal.A sin­gle grower is not likely to be able to do that on their own but it could be an op­tion if they form co­op­er­a­tive groups and work to­gether.”

He points to the ex­am­ple of the Gis­borne Citrus Grow­ers Co-op Ltd group, formed in the late-1990s, in which a group of grow­ers got to­gether, shared in­for­ma­tion and con­tracted to one pack­house.

“Then other pack­houses went into com­pe­ti­tion with them and among them­selves and it all fell to bits,” he said.

“If there’s no co-op­er­a­tion, then ev­ery­body loses.”

Work­ing to­gether could give grow­ers the strength to ne­go­ti­ate with su­per­mar­kets on price, while guar­an­tee­ing smooth­ness of sup­ply.

“With that crit­i­cal mass be­hind them they could be­come gen­uine partners with su­per­mar­kets and work to­gether on things like a sup­ply pro­gramme, where com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a big part of mak­ing it work,” he said.

“That could ac­tu­ally limit those big dumps of im­ported fruit on the mar­ket, fur­ther strength­en­ing the po­si­tion of lo­cal sup­pli­ers.”

Cen­tral to ev­ery­thing is the qual­ity of the fruit and Nick said early har­vest­ing by grow­ers des­per­ate to get the jump on the mar­ket causes huge rep­u­ta­tional dam­age.

“If clients are get­ting fruit that doesn't taste good they aren’t go­ing to for­get that ex­pe­ri­ence so they need to be get­ting the prod­uct at its ab­so­lute best.

“The New Zealand Citrus Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion is do­ing its best but, at the mo­ment, ma­tu­rity stan­dards are still vol­un­tary. NZ grow­ers can’t com­pete against mar­kets like the United States on how the fruit looks, but we can to­tally beat them on flavour. The more lo­cal grow­ers who are on board with that, the stronger the in­dus­try will be.

“The in­dus­try needs to work to­gether from grower through to con­sumer, and the con­sumer needs to be cen­tral to any ac­tions.”

Four years ago re­tir­ing NZ Citrus Grow­ers head of or­anges and tan­ge­los, David In­goe, said he was pes­simistic about the fu­ture of navel or­anges un­less grow­ers fronted up and took control.

“The cur­rent do­mes­tic mar­ket sit­u­a­tion, dom­i­nated as it is by the su­per­mar­kets will cut the throat of the navel orange com­po­nent of the citrus in­dus­try un­less change hap­pens,” he said.

“The price struc­ture must change to make it more vi­able to grow them.”

He was in­volved in the Gis­borne Grow­ers Co-op and said it was time to again look at that idea. And he also iden­ti­fied the prob­lem of rush­ing fruit to mar­ket be­fore it was ma­ture.

How­ever, Nick said un­less the in­dus­try hits rock bot­tom he’s not op­ti­mistic that the ma­jor­ity of grow­ers will come to­gether to a great enough ex­tent to form a func­tional co-op.

“I still think with a de­cent bloody shake-up there is good po­ten­tial for navels, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of ap­petite for change,” he said.

“Get­ting whole in­dus­try agree­ment is un­likely so a group of grow­ers is likely to have to pave their own path. Grow­ers need to be coura­geous and push for real change [so] they can de­liver a sweet con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence that will see con­sumers pay a sweet price.”

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