Cherry picking for the export market

Nestled among the rolling Warramate Hills of the Yarra Valley, in the tiny suburb of Gruyere, corporate lawyer, philanthropist and now fruit grower, Andrew Fairley AM has built a successful cherry business.

When it comes to Australian stone fruit, Andrew Fairley is of noble lineage. His grandfather and great uncle established Shepparton Preserving Company (which you would know as SPC) in 1918, transforming the initially humble operation into what would become the largest fruit-canning company in the Southern Hemisphere.

Andrew holding a bunch of cherries“I have such a strong heritage that it didn’t really matter to me what kind of stone fruit I was involved in, I just wanted to be doing that as part of my life’s work,” says Andrew.

It’s two weeks before Christmas – peak cherry harvesting time – and the packing shed at his business, Yarra Valley Cherries is a hive of activity. Three full-time staff and a band of seasonal employees busily pick, grade and pack boxes of premium fruit, bound for mostly domestic markets, and a handful of international export partners.

High on Andrew’s priority list for Yarra Valley Cherries is the development of the business’ international exports. However, the challenge for him and his team lies in finding a way to meet international pest and disease-free assurance measures without the use fumigation methods, which he believes diminishes the quality of his fruit.

“Our markets are overwhelmingly domestic at the moment, we’ve got a reasonably good export market into Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, but we would very much like to expand that,” says Andrew.

Andrew isn’t the only one facing this challenge.

Yarra Valley Cherries, along with six other Victorian cherry growers, has been participating in World Trade Organisation-approved systems approach trials throughout the 2018-19 season.

The trials involve temperature and trapping measures to manage pest infestations in place of more invasive management methods and are part of the Victorian Government’s $8 million Growing Food and Fibre Markets program, dedicated to delivering activities to build the capability and capacity of Victorian food and fibre industries.

During the 2018-19 season, the measures trialled included setting traps to detect Queensland Fruit Fly and implement corrective actions when pest thresholds are exceeded.

The Victorian Government is partnering with the CSIRO and other state governments to increase the range of pest management options available to exporting producers. Programs like the systems approach can be more affordable and less damaging to fruit quality, and enhance biosecurity standards in compliance with internationally accepted processes.

Andrew says weekly visits from government representatives allow his business to develop a credible audit trial based on the inspection of traps and randomly selected fruit.

“When we are sending pallets to export markets, we’ve accepted the need to inspect and actually cut up about two per cent of every pallet or from different boxes, randomly selected,” he says.

“It’s all very well for us to say we have no fruit fly, but we have an independent audit trail run by government that says ‘we come out every week and we inspect your traps and we inspect the traps of all of the places that participate in the systems approach… we can show them that we actually do undertake this random selection of fruit, we cut it up and are able to check.”

Gathering longitudinal evidence of pest management is critically important for growers wanting to export internationally, as many export partners require certification that produce has come from pest free areas or has been definitively treated to reduce the risk of pests entering the country. Currently, the only definitive treatments available to growers include methyl-bromide or cold treatment which may impact the quality of the fruit.

Charlotte Brunt is an industry development officer at Cherry Growers Australia and has been involved in the implementation of the systems approach trials - which she says are shaping up to be a real game-changer.

“Growers were keen on a non-treatment pathway for domestic and international market access, hence the idea [for the trials] was born.”

“The benefit of a non-treatment pathway means that there are no treatment costs, extra steps in the pathway,” she says.

“Growers will be able to ship direct from the farm, bypassing the need for treatment, this will mean produce will get to the destination quicker and transport and treatment costs will be minimised.

“It’s also better for the product – no heating, long term storage or irradiation, and better for the environment as methyl bromide is an ozone depleting gas and not always recaptured in fumigation facilities.”

Charlotte says the industry is in the midst of a growth phase, and development of export markets is critical for success.

“We need to make sure that our fruit is of the highest quality and build on Australia’s trusted brand of fresh, clean, green and safe food,” she says.

By 2020, we expect 50 per cent of cherry production to be exported nationally.”

Charlotte’s prediction is in step with the Victorian Government’s commitment to boost the export potential and value of Victoria’s food and fibre exports to $20 billion by 2030 by investing in Victoria’s production of high quality, premium food and fibre products in a complex and changing global market.