The citrus industry has called on the Federal Government to not “trip up” their trade with China, as Australian orange and mandarin growers enjoy the best prices in years.
- Nearly a quarter of citrus exports went to China last year
- Pink navel oranges can fetch as much as $1,300 a tonne
- The fruit can take five to seven years to come into full production
Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock said the industry was experiencing boom times, with growers getting twice to three times as much for their fruit as they were five years ago.
The citrus harvest started in early May and this season demand is expected to outstrip supply, largely due to increasing exports to China.
China accounted for almost a quarter of the total 273,000 tonnes of citrus fruit exported last year.
“In 2013 we were close to zero export tonnes to China … In 2017, we exceeded 70,000 tonnes to China,” Mr Hancock said.
But Mr Hancock was concerned about the fragility of the current world order, and Australia’s relationship with our most lucrative trading partner.
“I’m not the only one in industry who is nervous about that,” Mr Hancock said.
“We can’t do anything much about those political machinations except to say to our government we don’t want them tripping things up.”
Mr Hancock said the industry’s peak body, Citrus Australia, along with growers and packers had put “a lot of work” into supplying China’s needs.
‘It’s like a license to print money’
The on-farm protocols the Chinese government demanded, primarily to prevent pests and diseases, had been difficult to enact but the hard work has paid off.
Of the 25,000 hectares of citrus trees planted across the growing regions of Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, 9,200 hectares have been registered for export to China.
Second generation fruit grower John Hederics at Trentham, near Mildura, said one variety of pink-fleshed navel orange was particularly popular.
“It’s like a license to print money,” he said.
The pink navel, which looks like any other orange from the outside, can fetch as much as $1,300 a tonne, Mr Hederics said.
“China’s been a big change for us in the last four years with that market opening up and the demand for our fruit, they really love our fruit, especially the pink navels,” he said.
“The Australian dollar has been good to us the last couple of years, it has really made a difference to the profitability of us growing citrus and exporting it.”
Grower John Hederics says pink navels can fetch as much as $1,300 a tonne. (ABC News: Prue Adams)
Mr Hederics grows 130 hectares of citrus on his property adjacent to the Murray River, and he is clearing more land to expand the orchards to 350 hectares over the next three years; he wants to increase his production of seedless mandarins and pink-fleshed navels.
“It’s a big investment,” he said.
“You can’t just plant a tree and harvest it next year — you’ve got to wait five to seven years to come into full production, so it’s a real gamble guessing the varieties and what you should be doing.”
Mr Hederics is one of the Mildura Fruit Company’s (MFC) 130 contracted growers.
MFC is the country’s biggest single supplier to the China market — accounting for about one third of the overall citrus trade.
MFC general manager Perry Hill said the Mildura-based packing plant first shipped fruit to China in 2011, after the export trade to the United States collapsed.
“Going back ten or more years ago, the biggest market for the premium grade fruit was the US,” Mr Hill said.
“That diminished because of the likes of South Africa and Chile pushing a lot of fruit into that market, so all of a sudden we couldn’t get the premium prices we were looking for, so we turned our mind elsewhere.”
Tonnes of citrus exported to other countries from Australia in 2017. (Supplied: Citrus Australia)
He said the Chinese favour oranges over any other type of fruit and “pay good money but expect good quality”.
Citrus Australia boss Nathan Hancock agreed the Chinese demand premium fruit so other markets have been established to accept a broader range of quality.
“We have market access to 57 countries, 30 or more of them we trade with regularly but 90 per cent of our trade is to 14 countries and 12 of those are Asian nations,” he said.
He claimed it is “not too much of a risk for us to say we are in a boom time”.
“Probably we will grow the industry by 20 per cent over the next five to 10 years just in the nursery stock that is being ordered at the moment.”
Mr Hancock said most of the citrus fruit going to China was being consumed in the southern coastal region and there was still potential to market oranges and mandarins to the densely-populated inland cities.
Citrus Australia is also investigating markets in India where, like China, there is a growing middle-class willing to pay for good quality food.
For more on this story watch Landline at 12:30pm.