The Orchardist

Gisborne citrus

- By Kristine Walsh

Solid-looking crops and interestin­g opportunit­ies in the domestic market bode well for the 2020 Gisborne citrus season, despite the uncertainl­y of the marketplac­e.

The potential fall-out from the COVID-19 Coronaviru­s pandemic had jitters across all industries, but a highvolume crop of a healthy food product could weather the storm, says James Williams, a grower himself who manages the domestic markets portfolio for Citrus New Zealand.

In early March, Minister of Agricultur­e, Damien O’connor, declared the drought affecting Gisborne to be a “mediumscal­e” adverse event, but James Williams says that’s had different effects across the region.

At his own orchards in the Muriwai and Manutuke parts of the region, for example, the around 10 millilitre­s he expected over one night in mid-march was about a fifth of what was needed.

“But other parts of Gisborne have fared better in volumes of rainfall in recent months, so the effects are patchy.

“What we have seen, though, is that the dry weather and extremely high temperatur­es recorded towards the end of last year have had some impact on tree health, resulting in a drop in the volume of fruit as well as in fruit size, particular­ly in the Yen Ben and Meyer lemons. However, the quality, volume and maturity are still good – albeit with some delay in fruit colour – so they should have a great season.”

Going forward, there were hopes for a steady-as-she-goes lead-in to the season with Niwa’s three-month forecast to the end of May, indicating Gisborne growers could expect slightly warmer temperatur­es, but normal rainfall.

With 2019 having been an ‘off’ year for some growers in the biennial yields of the citrus crop, James said indication­s for a heavier crop in 2020 are already good, with an expectatio­n that yields will be up at least 20% on the year before.

The quality, quantity and returns of the citrus crop are especially important to Gisborne as, according to Citrus NZ figures, the region produces 56% of the national crop of about 30,700 tonnes, making it a big contributo­r to the local economy.

Of that national crop, by far the biggest volume is sold to domestic buyers, with the exception of lemons, for which the split is close to 50/50 across the domestic and export markets.

James is optimistic that, even with a bigger crop produced in trying times, there is the potential for good returns on the domestic market.

That was especially since COVID-19 had led to a doublingdo­wn on the “buy New Zealand” message, plus, import programmes for the two major buyers – Countdown and Foodstuffs – had not run as smoothly as they would have liked.

“That’s largely due to the Ministry for Primary Industries being extra vigilant in watching for pests at both ends of the border

– here and in the United States – which has seen fruit come under such diligent scrutiny that entire container loads have been held back from suppliers.and even those containers that can be reworked can present issues – if lemons have to be fumigated, for example, that affects their shelf life, so retailers are prepared to pay more for good domestic product.

“It’s basically a case of what is bad news for one sector can be good for another, and in this case, we’re anticipati­ng the scrutiny on imports to be good news for New Zealand growers.they’ll be able to get good quality fruit to market in a timely manner, and that’s what the buyers require.”

As the impact of the fall-out from COVID-19 first became apparent, James initially heard reports that supermarke­t shoppers were buying long-life food and was concerned that could put short-term pressure on domestic sales of fruit and vegetables.

“But as things evolved, one of our major buyers said sales were right up for any food perceived as having health benefits – the likes of citrus and ginger – so even with increased volumes, we’re optimistic going into the season.

“That said, at this early stage there is still much that is unknown. For example, if there are widespread school closures that could have an impact on Satsuma mandarins, which are a staple lunchbox item. That’s not something we can plan for with any reasonable accuracy.”

In terms of harvest, it looked like Gisborne growers would be on track to kick off on schedule with lemons and mandarins in late April, and navel oranges due to be picked from July, right through until December.

That’s if they can get them off the trees: James Williams anticipate­d that restricted mobility for internatio­nal backpacker­s would have an impact on the labour force, though that shortfall could be made up by horticultu­re opening up jobs for workers hit by losses in other industries.

“But there are still implicatio­ns for packhouses, where there are concerns about exposure to COVID-19 and they are changing the rules by the day as to who is allowed to go on site.and that is the sensible approach to take . . . the potential ramificati­ons of someone on a grading line contractin­g the virus are worth taking very seriously.”

Overall, James Williams was upbeat about the quality and quantity of citrus expected out of Gisborne this year, and was pleased with the level of promotiona­l activity underway to ensure a receptive market.

“We are barely at the start of the season in what is proving to be a very interestin­g year, so are mindful that a lot can change along the way,” he said.

“But we’ve already been talking with both major retailers about their anticipati­on of the start of both the Satsuma and navel orange seasons and, to date, those conversati­ons have been very, very positive.”

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