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How Climatic Conditions are Impacting on Fresh Produce Supplies

John Baker
Produce Marketing Australia

INTRODUCTION:

Drought is having a big impact on the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, reflected in higher retail prices for many items. However, the impact varies from product to product.

Also, the picture could change if more rain, similar to falls received across parts of eastern Australia in early November, is received over the coming months.

The purpose of this article is to provide a summary of how the supply of the most popular fruits and vegetables is expected to unfold into 2008.

Water for irrigation is currently scarce across south eastern Australia, and especially in the Murray Basin, which is the main production area for many fruits and vegetables. For example, farms along the Murray River in Victoria and South Australia (citrus, stone fruit, table grapes, carrots etc) have been guaranteed only 16% of their normal allocation (and even less on the NSW side of the Murray system). Along the Goulburn River in Victoria, which supplies the Shepparton district (the country’s biggest supplier of pears, stone fruit, apples, summer tomatoes and more) the allocation is 28%.

Most fruit growers are purchasing water, because they are thinking about the survival of the trees and not just growing a crop this season. For example, the cost of purchasing additional water for table grapes has been estimated at $4 per 10kg carton, an increase of 25% in overall growing costs.

Many farmers are making decisions based on the following priorities:
  1. Allocate water available and/or purchased to the best performing orchards and varieties with the best returns
  2. Provide survival water to other orchards (and removing all the fruit), in the hope there is no long-term damage to trees and
  3. Abandon the least productive orchards and varieties (this has already happened with Valencia plantings in the Sunraysia [Mildura] and South Australian Riverland)
One positive impact for Australian consumers, from the high Australian dollar, has been more fruit directed to the domestic market, as export markets are becoming increasingly uncompetitive.

FRUIT

Avocados

Australian avocado production is currently in its off-season, apart from production in the south west of Western Australia, which is only sufficient to supply their local market.

Most Hass avocados will be sourced from New Zealand until early March, when production will resume in north Queensland. Early season Shepard avocados (a green-skinned variety) will be available from far north Queensland in February.

Apples

Members of the Australian Fresh Fruit Company (AFFCO) network, representing over half the national apple crop and more than 80% of pear production, report the situation varies widely from district to district.

Conditions leading up to the 2008 harvest, starting in late January, are better so far than 2007 in Tasmania, South Australia and Shepparton (where there has been no frost or hail so far and the water situation is marginally better, although still grim).

A good season is being experienced in Donnybrook Western Australia, but bad hail losses are already reported in Manjimup/Pemberton (also hitting wine grapes in Margaret River). Water is in short supply in Stanthorpe, Orange, Batlow, North East Victoria and Southern Victoria.

Overall, the volume of apples should be up next year, compared with the current season, which produced the lowest volume for many years (hence the high retail prices) and is just finishing. Gala apples will open the new season in late January

Bananas

Banana production is now back to normal and there will be ample to heavy supplies in December, leading up to Christmas. Over 90% of banana production is in far north Queensland, south of Cairns.

Quality is now better, as earlier production has been affected by a very cold winter, causing ‘dull’ appearance in fruit.

Production in 2008 should result in regular supplies, with occasional peaks, which is a characteristic of bananas.

Berries

Victoria will now be the main source of supply for strawberries until the middle of next year. Most production is close to Melbourne and water comes from on-farm dams, which are now full after good rains in early November. However, the rain also affected fruit quality at the time.

Blueberry growers have had an excellent season so far, and good supplies are forecast through to March, according to Peter McPherson of BerryExchange, Australia’s main blueberry and raspberry grower. Blueberry farms are located on the NSW north coast (north of Coffs Harbour), southern NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

Good supplies of raspberries will also be available, with increased production from both the NSW north coast and Tasmania.

Cherries

Growers around Australia generally report moderate to good crops, although production varies from farm to farm. Water supplies are satisfactory in most districts, apart from Orange.

The peak of production will occur from mid/late November through to mid/late January, and supplies will continue into February. Rain close to harvest, not drought, is the biggest threat for cherry growers.

Post-Christmas cherries will come from Young, southern Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Citrus

The Valencia crop, which is currently being harvested, is the lightest in 38 years, according to Australian Citrus Growers’ Judith Damiani. Production is estimated at 180,000 tonnes, compared with normal crops of up to 300,000 tonnes. Harvest should continue until the new season Navels appear in April.

Navel production next year could be down by one third, especially from the Sunraysia and Riverland. The NSW Riverina, around Griffith and Leeton, is guaranteed at least 75% water for permanent plantings, like citrus, and this will be a major source of fruit next year.

Mandarin production will also be down, despite recent good rains in Queensland, the main producing state.

Kiwifruit

Green and Gold kiwifruit are sourced from New Zealand from June onwards and 2008 should be a normal season. Australian kiwifruit production is quite small and mostly from Victoria, prior to the start of the New Zealand season.

Mangoes

Cold weather, rather than drought, has been the main influence on the mango crops in the Northern Territory and Queensland. All districts are about five weeks later than normal.

Reasonable volumes will be available in December, and then continue until March.

The North Territory season finishes in late November. Supplies will then come from the Atherton Tablelands, Townsville (Burdekin area), Bundaberg and further south in Queensland and northern NSW.

Melons

Survival prospects for rockmelon crops in NSW, South Australia and Victoria were boosted by rain in early November, although production will be well down. Production from Griffith in the NSW Riverina is well down and South Australian production is also less.

Rockmelon, honeydew, mini-melon and watermelon crops in Queensland (such as Bundaberg) are expected to cover most of the short-fall. These areas have become more important for melon production.

Pears

Over 80% of Australia’s pears are grown around Shepparton, with most of the balance in the Adelaide Hills and south west of Western Australia. The 2008 crop has the potential to provide more fresh fruit, because frost and hail damage had a big impact on quality this year and significant volumes had to be processed for juice.

Stone Fruit (Peaches, Plums, Nectarines, Apricots)

Peach, nectarine and plum production for the upcoming season is set to drop by 30 to 40%, compared with 2006/07, according to growers’ representative Summerfruit Australia. The biggest decline in availability is expected to be after Christmas, until the end of the season in March. Fruit available to date has been very good eating.

The news is much better for apricots, with early season fruit in store and good supplies forecast from Tasmania after Christmas.

Table Grapes

Production is expected to be down by 10 to 20 per cent, because of the impact of the drought in the Sunraysia (Mildura), where 80+ % of grapes are grown. The main harvest will commence in early to mid February. Early season grapes are currently arriving from Queensland.

VEGETABLES

Availability of vegetables is less predictable, because vegetable growers in many districts do not have access to high security water, unlike fruit growers.

Potatoes and onions are likely to be the two crops under the most pressure, together with salad and green vegetables next winter.

Capsicum

A significant proportion of summer capsicums will continue to be shipped from New Zealand. Winter capsicum production from north Queensland should not be adversely affected.

Carrots

Carrot supplies will be satisfactory, due to the diversity of growing areas. Any short-fall in production from traditional locations like Griffith should be covered by increased supplies from Western Australia and Tasmania, as well as new growing areas, such as the Mallee region on the Victorian/South Australian border, where underground water is available.
Declining exports from Western Australia means more carrots will be marketed in the eastern states.

Onions

Onions are also expected to be in short supply, although not to the same extent as potatoes. New Zealand onions are expected to fill any gaps in local supply.

Potatoes

Potato prices are already rising and local production is anticipated to be insufficient to meet requirements. Plans are already being developed to source some fresh potatoes from New Zealand.

Some potato and onion farmers in the Riverland region have moved their growing operations to the Mallee region, where water supply is more assured.

Salad and Green Vegetables

Good summer and autumn production of lettuce, celery, broccoli and cauliflower is expected, although there could be below average production over short periods. Major growing regions around Melbourne (such as Werribee) received good rains in early November, boosting grower confidence to increase plantings. In addition, farmers in Warrnambool in western Victoria have commenced growing lettuce for the first time and water supply is reliable.

The big unknown will be next winter. Most winter production comes from south east Queensland, where there is a desperate shortage of water. Above average summer rains are needed to boost underground water sources and on-farm dams.

Tomatoes

Field tomato production in Queensland and Shepparton should be adequate. Queensland supplies tomatoes year-round, primarily from the Bundaberg district. Shepparton supplies tomatoes during summer and autumn and the main growers have purchased water to meet their needs.

Specialty tomato production (truss, cherry etc), which is increasing, is undertaken in hydroponic greenhouses and water is not a limiting factor.

Thanks to the following additional information sources:
Vegetables – Mike Titley, MHT Vegetable Consulting;
Chris Cope, Sydney Market Reporting Service;
Fruit and Vegetable Industry Representatives.
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