Tasmania's new niche
From major apple exporter to niche cherry supplier.
Many cherry growers in Tasmania protect their orchards with hail nets and rain covers.
The International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association held its 50th annual meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, in February. Geraldine Warner reports on the changes that the Tasmanian tree fruit industry is going through.
The small Australian island of Tasmania, once the largest apple producer in the Southern Hemisphere, is finding a new niche supplying late-season cherries when no others are available.
The rugged island, less than 200 miles wide, used to have close ties to the United Kingdom, having been colonized during the nineteenth century primarily by convicts shipped from Britain. The first apple orchards were planted in the 1820s. Before long, forests were cleared and replanted with expanses of apple trees. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the state was exporting six million boxes of apples annually, 95 percent of which were shipped to the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe.
Exports faltered in the 1970s after the United Kingdom joined the European Common Market. Then came competition from other Southern Hemisphere producers, such as New Zealand, Chile, and South Africa. As demand for Red Delicious dropped off in export markets, the Tasmanian apple industry suffered.
"When trends changed, we weren't up with it," commented Garry Langford, general manager of the Australian Pome Fruit Improvement Program, Ltd.
"We went to sleep," agreed Scott Price, orchard manager for Calvert Brothers at Ranelagh in the Huon Valley. "We got very complacent. We were so far removed from the customers, we didn't know who we were dealing with anyway. People were just thinking, 'This is the way it's going to be forever,' and didn't plan."
Growers were producing varieties that weren't marketable, he recalled. In the late 1980s, they thought Fuji would be the answer to their problems, but the standard Fuji strain russeted badly in Tasmania's maritime climate. "We're struggling to find new varieties," he said.
Many apple orchards in Tasmania have been removed, and the state's production has dropped to 1.5 million boxes.
"Most people have chosen to do something else," Langford said. "The industry in Tasmania is still quite vibrant, but smaller than it used to be."
Australia's apple production regions range from a latitude of 28°S (equivalent to Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Northern Hemisphere) to 42°S (equivalent to Eugene, Oregon), with most apples now produced between 33°S and 38°S in Victoria and New South Wales on the Australian mainland. Tasmania, the southernmost apple-growing area, produces about 15 percent of Australia's total apple crop.
The remaining Tasmanian growers have switched varieties. Red Delicious, which accounted for 46 percent of the crop in 1994, has declined to 34 percent, and Fuji has overtaken Golden Delicious as the second major variety. Growers produce striped Fuji for export to Taiwan and Japan. Other varieties include Jonagold, Gala, Cripps Pink, Cripps Red, and Braeburn.
Although Australia does not allow imports of apples, Tasmanian growers are feeling the impact of an international oversupply of apples because of their traditional focus on exports, said orchardist Tim Reid. "We're finding it increasingly difficult to compete in international markets because of the high cost of production compared to China."
The average apple yield in Tasmania is only 22 bins per acre, reported Predo Jotic, senior horticulturist at the Grove Research Station. Total production, packing, shipping, and marketing costs average Aus.$94,464 per hectare (U.S.$ 30,000 per acre), and only 17 percent of the total costs (those for growing and harvesting) are controlled by growers.
Today, growers are focusing on small, niche markets, said Tasmanian orchardist Andrew Smith. "There's a strong trend to change out of apples into other fruits. Like everywhere else in the world, apple growers are planting cherry trees flat out."
The cherries are shipped to the Australian mainland or to Asia. Growers can make good profits air freighting extra large cherries (8-1/2 or 9 row) to Taiwan. Because of its fruit-fly-free status, Tasmania is the only Australian state able to ship to Taiwan, though its main competitive advantage is its late season and large fruit.
Lapins cherries are picked in January and February, and can be sent to Taiwan for the Chinese New Year. The Lapins sport Sweet Georgia matures two to three weeks after Lapins.
In cherries, growers have no mildew problems, but bacterial canker is a serious concern, along with splitting. Tasmania's fruit-growing regions receive up to 45 inches of rain annually, and many orchards are protected by hail nets.
Growers depend largely on backpackers to pick their fruit. The island has a population of 450,000, and most locals have no desire to pick fruit, Smith said. Backpackers, on the other hand, like to visit orchards, earn a few hundred dollars, and then move on to the next place. "It's a beautiful place to visit," Smith said.