AUSTRALIAN fresh produce may be enjoying an enviable status symbol position in lucrative Asian markets at the moment but we certainly don’t have sole rights to the clean, green tag.
Competitors are hot on our heels and the key to longer term success in export markets will be the ability to meet increasingly stringent consumer quality demands along with gaining ground in areas such as building critical mass and forging strategic relationships.
That message was delivered in the horticulture session at the big commodity forecasting conference, ABARES Outlook, in Canberra last month.
The value of Australia’s fresh produce exports has more than doubled since 2010, to finish last financial year at $2.1b, senior economists reported.
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Driving that growth has been Asian import demand for high-quality fresh produce, a relatively low exchange rate and improved market access.
Fruit and nuts are the star performers and the citrus boom in China is the talk of the hort world at the moment.
Australia’s largest citrus exporter, Costa Group, is thinking well beyond just filling today’s big China orders to place itself in the box seat to meet ongoing strong high-end demand.
General manager for citrus and grapes at Costa Elliot Jones provided those at Outlook with an inside view of the company’s plan of attack on exports.
“China is where the growth is at the moment. Demand is far greater than supply can meet and that is propelling the industry but it’s not teaching us anything,” he said.
“How sustainable is it?
“Our strategy has been to focus on the highest grade and best quality and to build a baseline position around our brand.”
The 130-year old Costa, with multi-generations of family ownership, was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange three years ago.
It has seen more than one boom-bust citrus cycle and Mr Jones says while farmgate values for growers have increased two to three times in the past five years, creating sustainable export markets will be crucial to their future.
Here’s Costa’s recipe for doing just that.
Maintain and improve market access protocols. Quite simply, if the doors are not open we can’t do business, says Mr Jones.
Have a point of difference. “We don’t want to compete solely on price against traditional southern hemisphere competitors so we must focus on key differentiators,” he said.
“They don’t have to be significant. Timing, aesthetic appeal of fruit, the ability to mobilise quickly - the one percenters will give us a competitive edge.”
Concentrate on building critical mass in core markets. Australia now supplies Japan for 48 weeks, where ten years ago it was 22 weeks. More of that, says Mr Jones.
Australian citrus at a glance
- 28,000 hectares grown nationally with a mix of juicing and packed citrus
- 176,000 tonnes exported last calendar year, a 20pc increase on previous year
- $440m in exports last year, a 33pc increase on the previous year
- 55pc increase in export volumes over the past three years
“We should not try to be everything to everyone,” he said.
“Rather than try and do a half job in lots of markets we focus on the ones we want to protect and build our position in.”
High quality imported produce continues to be a status item in Asian markets, often equated to wine or cheese, according to Mr Jones.
“That’s a fantastic position for us to be in as an industry,” he said.
“Australia has a very good image but Chile and Peru are not far behind us.
“Retailers want more than commodities now. They are in a difficult space, all trying to find an identity and wanting a small edge. If our product can call out some attribute that gives them a credible point of difference.”