Plenty Of Growth Ahead For NZ, Aussie Fruit

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Kiwifruit, apples and citrus comprise largest dollar imports to U.S. and Canada.

Sparing any freak weather events, import mainstays from Australia and New Zealand such as citrus, apples and kiwifruit are all due for larger crops this year, while niche premium items including lychees, mangos and kiwiberries continue to tantalize palates.

Revived from the throes of a damaging vine disease that struck in 2011, New Zealand’s (NZ) kiwifruit industry overtook apples as the country’s most valuable fresh fruit export crop to North America in 2018.    

Kiwifruit represented 38 per cent of the US$184.64 million worth of fresh fruit imported by the United States and Canada from these two countries in 2018, followed by NZ apples (36 percent) and Australian citrus (19.5 percent).

Trading seasons are around the corner for these dominant Antipodean categories, starting with kiwifruit and apples in May, before citrus starts arriving in July. 

“Last year, we did about 8.2 million trays [of kiwifruit] into North America, so around a 60-percent increase in volume,” says Ben Hughes, regional manager for the Americas at Zespri International, based in Orange County, CA.

Hughes expects the rise will be just as large in 2019 in tray terms, with significant growth coming every year for the next four years.

“That growth is really driven by SunGold,” he says of the gold kiwifruit brand that has risen through the ranks to replace Zespri Gold, a cultivar that is susceptible to vine disease Psa.

“For retailers, Zespri SunGold kiwifruit outpaced normal retail sales growth by about 116 points last year,” he says. “We did some independent research, and what we found is if we had a 6-foot by 2-foot display, which was double what was currently there, it increased revenue sales by 96 percent in the store.”

For the uninitiated, Hughes notes the variety has a tropical-sweet taste, is hairless so it has a smooth skin, and stays ripe for longer than the green Hayward kiwifruit, which also has seen growth through leveraging SunGold and heightened awareness of Zespri’s strict quality metrics.

“SunGold has absolutely been a game-changer,” says Steve Woodyear-Smith, vice president of categories for tropicals, avocados and citrus at Oppy, based in Vancouver, BC. “It has a longer selling season of May through February if you include fruit grown in the Northern Hemisphere, a taste experience that appeals to a broad range of preferences, and it’s easier to pack and ship because of its shape.”

Hughes expects the Italian SunGold season to keep expanding by a week or two each year for the next few years in order to have the fruit more consistently available on supermarket shelves, while production trials are underway in California and Oregon to see if local supply is viable.

Jason Kazmirski, produce/floral merchandiser at Tukwila, WA-based Northwest Grocers, which provides services to independent retailers in the Pacific Northwest, says he is very excited about the upcoming SunGold season. “They’re doing better and better,” he says. “We started a few years ago, and it was kind of hit and miss, but then we just got into them. Every year, that’s been another category that’s growing.”

Kazmirski also points to the importance of counter-seasonal apples and citrus from New Zealand and Australia, respectively.

“It’s huge. It gets into summertime, and we’re still rolling with the Envy and Jazz [apples],” he says.

New Zealand Apples

With improved post-harvest techniques and technology allowing domestic apples to stay in storage longer, is counterseasonal fruit as competitive?

“Consumers are educated and ask themselves, ‘Do I want a fresh apple or do I want something that was picked nine months ago?’ They figured it out,” says Kazmirski. “We get POS materials that say fresh New Zealand apples are available, and they react to it. It’s the same with the citrus.”

Although apples were not the highest earning fruit export from New Zealand to North America last year, they still led the way in volume.

According to Alan Pollard, chief executive at New Zealand Apples and Pears in Hastings, NZ, exports worldwide more than doubled between 2012 and 2018.

“About 80 percent is due to a value increase rather than a volume increase — we are extracting greater value per metric ton [MT] from our premium product offerings,” he says, adding that the United States is the sector’s third-largest export destination.

A big part of those premiums comes from varieties, including Jazz and Envy, which are trademarks owned by T&G Global, based in Auckland, NZ, and partnered with Oppy in North America.

David Nelley, category vice president for apples, pears and cherries and global exports at Oppy, says Jazz apples will arrive in late May, while Envy is set for June.

He believes it is a combination of flavor and superior new varieties that has kept New Zealand apples competitive despite improved storage and preferences for locally sourced food.

“The past few years, Pink Lady, Royal Gala and Fuji have done really well in North America to provide savvy retailers a point of differentiation from their competitors who are selling old crop apples,” he says. “Having larger sizes complement a crop that’s smaller in sizing plays a role in adding to the category, too.”

Jason Bushong, division manager at Giumarra Wenatchee in Wenatchee, WA, says his company imports pears; Meyer lemons, apricots and kiwiberries from New Zealand, but apples are the largest program.

“We offer traditional varieties, as well as our exclusive new variety Lemonade, which has been in the commercial market for two years,” he says. “Lemonade is a yellow apple with a bright, sweet-tart flavor and crisp texture.

“It has a firm yet juicy crunch,” says Bushong. “Despite it being relatively new to the marketplace, we have gotten a lot of feedback from consumers who are excited about this apple and want to know where they can buy it.”

Seeka Limited, Giumarra’s kiwiberry supplier partner based in Te Puke, has been shipping to the United States for three years with a season that lasts four weeks in February.

“The fruit is oval in shape, with a smooth soft skin,” says a Seeka spokesperson. “Kiwiberries are located in the berry section of the supermarket and come in two sizes, 125g or 454g punnets. They have high nutritional value and are ideal as a snack or in school lunches.”

“New Zealand product produces out of season compared to the United States and Canada berries so they both complement each other to help grow the category, build awareness and help provide more consistent supply for consumers,” says Geoff Oliver, chairman of NZ KiwiBerry Growers Inc., in Te Puke.

Australian Citrus

Although Australian citrus was significantly squeezed out of the U.S. market by Chile around the end of the past decade, exports worldwide have more than doubled since then and the North American deal is staging a comeback.

“Where the United States was once the No. 1 market and we suffered pretty fierce competition from Chile, the data’s showing it’s still very much on our agenda,” says David Daniels, general manager for market development at Citrus Australia, an industry body based in Mildura. “[The U.S. market] was No. 4 last season behind China, Japan and Hong Kong and valued at around US$18.5 million.”

He says the balance is evenly split between Navels and Mandarins, while the industry hopes to ship more of the latter once Queensland Mandarins are granted access to the United States.

“The industry sentiment is there’s a strong market there for Murcotts, which are grown predominantly in Queensland,” says Daniels. “We’re very keen to see that finalized.”

“The United States has actually published the technical conditions for fruit flies in their treatment manual; it really is just an administrative process now for APHIS to put their proposed rule on the public register and go through their processes to seek comment from the stakeholders and so on, which can take a bit of time.”

Chris Deveney, director at exporter Favco in Brisbane, says there are more opportunities for Australian citrus in the United States now than there were three years ago.

“The [lower] Australian dollar’s helping, but it’s not what’s driving it,” he says. “There’s recognition of the value of Australian fruit and offering their consumers that point of difference. Nobody wins in price wars over cheap fruit.”

“If ever there was a year for U.S. retailers to invest time and money and effort into Australian citrus, this is probably the year to do it,” says Deveney.

Kazmirski of Northwest Grocers claims when Australian and Chilean oranges are put side by side, the former tends to outperform the latter.

Mangos And Lychees

“Do you mean I could have gone to my grave and never tasted this? This has got to be one of the best days of my life.”

The above comment reportedly came from an 80-year-old man after tasting an Aussie mango for the first time at Gelson’s Markets in California, one retailer where the Australian Mango Industry Association (AMIA), Brisbane, ran promotions last winter in partnership with Giumarra Companies of Los Angeles.

It’s the kind of over-the-top positivity that makes Australians and Californians alike, but it was not an isolated reaction, according to AMIA marketing director Treena Welch.

“What I saw was a great buy-in at the store level,” says Welch. “You can see that whole emotional attachment starting to be created.”

“It’s really about bringing a little bit of summer into their winter with that wonderful brightness of the mango — especially Kensington Pride — when things can be a bit dull and drab,” says Marie Piccone, managing director of grower-exporter Manbulloo, a group based in Brisbane, with farms in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

The yellow and very sweet Kensington Pride variety is different than the R2E2 mango, which Piccone describes as creamier and less intense with a red blush and the ability to grow to a much larger size — a trait that makes it popular with Asian populations in Canada where trade has been taking place for around eight years.

Welch explains the third type of Australian mango, Calypso, has yellow-orange skin with a “beautiful pink blush” and firmer flesh.

Giumarra Companies offers all three of these varieties from November to January and has completed its fifth year importing them thanks to a protocol signed between both countries in 2013.

“For mangos, the category predominates in the first nine months of the year,” says Kellee Harris, Giumarra Companies’ regional business development director. “Given that the Australian varieties are available primarily in the fourth quarter, this gives American consumers the ability to have high quality mangos year-round.”

“The fruit is generally large and dense with smaller seeds, giving consumers a generous amount of edible fruit per piece. Consumers often compare the sweet taste as being similar to a peach.”

Harris notes year-over-year growth in the deal involving heavily supported demo programs with upscale retailers who pride themselves on high quality. She also suggests cross-merchandising with Australian wines, cheeses and other gourmet specialty items.

“Our combined investment in this program has taught consumers Australian mangos offer a unique, flavorful eating experience, and they are only available for a limited time,” she says.

Diane Phan, acting trade manager at Australian grower industry group Hort Innovation, based in Sydney, says her country’s exporters need to be extremely strategic with their market entry plans and clearly position themselves to appeal to target consumers in a noisy marketplace.

This has been the approach of lychee shippers, who had a U.S. protocol approved in 2012 but only started the first pilot export program for the 2015-16 season.

Daniel Newport, account manager at Pinnacle Fresh USA in Kingsburg, CA, says customers offered glowing praise of Australian lychees this past season, with an approach targeting independent grocers with Asian demographics.

“The external color on the skin, the nice red blush that Australian lychees can get, is a lot better than the South African quality,” says Newport. “South African lychees tend to be paler on the exterior color so less attractive on the eye.

This crop is also exported over the North American winter, but with the right conditions it has the potential to be a much longer deal, according to Jill Houser, executive director of the Australian Lychee Growers Association (ALGA) in Mooloolah.

“It’s still a small volume compared to what could get over there,” she says, highlighting her industry has one of the longest lychee growing seasons in the world, lasting from late October to early March.

The main limitation is technical, as there are certain crop protection products used by growers that the United States does not yet recognize, and therefore separate U.S.-oriented blocks are needed for the program.

Pinnacle Fresh also ran a cherry import program from Tasmania and New Zealand that finished in early February; a small trade that is growing steadily even though the price is often double that of the South American competition.

“Flavor is the point of difference,” says Newport. “That’s the strategy we peddle in the States, and we tend to focus on opremium retailers, premium areas of the country.”