THE Yarra Valley berry season is just weeks away from beginning and 2018 will be the year of new export markets, according to YV Fresh sales manager Jeff Matthews.
Last year, Mr Matthews was part of a contingent who travelled to Asia as part of a tour aimed at making the Indonesian berry exports viable.
In 2018, YV Fresh plan to break-even in a break through market; with hopes of sending 15 tonnes of soft fruit – raspberries and blackberries – along with 20 tonnes of cherries and more than 100 tonnes of blueberries this year and into 2020.
It is a far cry from the berry company that was founded in 2007 to be a central point for growers in the area.
Since then, YV Fresh has grown to represent 25 suppliers nationally.
Based in Silvan, the company is a major stakeholder in the Australian Rubus industry, with a large proportion of Australia’s raspberries and blackberries produced by local stakeholders.
“The original growers wanted to see their produce more aligned to sell to supermarkets, rather than lots of little individuals,” Mr Matthews said.
“There was no certainty in the business – they didn’t know what the others were asking for, price wise, and YV Fresh was started so that, together, the individual farmers had a bigger presence.”
YV Fresh is one of the only grower owned berry cooperatives in Australia.
It is spearheaded by Steve Pisin, who reports to the company directors – all of who are berry growers.
Mr Matthews’ role is to source, and to sell.
“We use a common YV Fresh label – but a pallet of raspberries might have produce from a number of growers, so quality has to be consistent across all growers,” he said.
“The growers bring their produce into the warehouse already packed – YV Fresh branded – and they give us a fortnightly volume forecast.”
Mr Matthews sources buyers for the fruit – 90 per cent of which goes to Coles, Woolworths and Costco.
Each Monday, Mr Matthews quotes the stock available for the three big supermarkets and the price it is worth – by Thursday negotiations are complete, and a forecast of requirements is sent to growers.
The season takes off sharply early November, with raspberries and an early blackberry variety the first to peak.
YV Fresh also represent growers of cherries, Krimson Kiss, blueberries, red currants, kiwiberries, strawberries, red bayberries, chestnuts and lemons – most of which are processed from November to April.
But like all industries, the challenges come in waves.
Currently, the berry industry is facing market oversupply at certain times of the season.
Like the glut that struck grape growers in the 1990s, new berry farms are popping up across Australia.
“We are starting to see supply exceed demand – that puts pressure on prices,” Mr Matthews said.
One of the ways around this is to increase export volume.
“We did some trials last season – we sent product to India and Canada,” Mr Matthews said.
Canada went surprisingly well, with India not as adept at handling the fruit.
“Indonesia is a market with great potential – because of both proximity and consumption,” Mr Matthews said.
The problem with successfully exporting berries is that, to arrive with a saleable shelf life, the produce must remain between 2-4 degrees in transit.
“They are sent airfreight in a container that is not actually refrigerated, but is lined with dry ice,” Mr Matthews said.
“There are a lot of variables with that, from the right amount of dry ice being used to the atmospheric heat.
“The transport and logistics are the biggest barriers.”
The other obstacle is the need for fruit treatment.
Currently, all soft fruit exported to Indonesia must be first treated – with an irradiation plant in Brisbane the most practical option.
Food irradiation destroys bacteria and pests, and extends the shelf life of food.
“To tap into that Indonesian market, we have to truck the produce to Brisbane, have it treated, and then get it put straight on a plane to export – the logistics of the whole process are a lot to consider,” Mr Matthews said.
Adding more than $250 to each pallet of produce, the irradiation treatment does not come cheap.
Despite this, the market continues to look promising – according to the 2018 RuralBank Horticultural Annual Review, fresh blueberry consumption has grown slightly from 0.30kg per capita in 2014 to 0.33kg per capita in 2016.
Around 41 per cent of Australian households purchased blueberries in 2016.
Strawberry exports have grown from 728 tonnes in 2010 to 4197 tonnes in 2017, the majority of which is sent from Western Australia.
Around 75 per cent of total expenditure on strawberries comes from one third of the population, with Australian consumers purchasing an average 3.62kg per year.
Market wide, Australian fruit exports are estimated to reach $699 million for the 2017 calendar year, up 17 per cent compared to 2016 – although the majority of this is made up of citrus varieties.