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Bittersweet: great-tasting navels amid export challenges for citrus growers

The quality of the region's navel orange crop has been described as “superb” but Covid challenges have made for a tough 2021 season for citrus exports.

“Gisborne's citrus growers, packers and marketing companies are taking the opportunity to take stock, look at the season that was and, with new season flowering under way, start the process of thinking about the season ahead,” First Fresh NZ managing director Ian Albers said.

“Right now, we are seeing the tail end of the Washington navel crop coming in for packing to be followed by late navel varieties. The eating quality of Gisborne navels has been superb this year . . . and this has resulted in a really positive response from consumers around the country.

“It's a testament to the independent maturity testing regime implemented five years ago by peak industry body Citrus NZ.”

On the whole, it had been “a mixed bag” of a year to date, he said.

“The season started with Satsuma mandarins and with good demand and stable supply, growers were rewarded for good quality fruit with some of the best returns in recent seasons.

“However, returns need to increase as on-orchard direct and indirect costs have also increased significantly, so we need to at least keep pace with them in order for growers to remain profitable.

“Labour supply through the winter has been tight and growers have needed to be well organised to ensure labour was available when needed.”

The navel orange season got off to great start, thanks mostly to great-tasting fruit and a market place looking for good-quality citrus, Mr Albers said.

“Gisborne navel growers have once again proved that they can grow some of the best-tasting navels in the world and delivering that from day one has meant repeat purchasing by consumers has been very consistent.

“The shift to Alert Level 4 mid-August saw an initial surge in demand similar to last year, especially for pre-packed fruit, but it settled down reasonably quickly and demand has been steady over the last couple of months.

“On the export front, it's been a tough year, thanks largely to a severely-disrupted supply chain and stubbornly-strong Kiwi dollar,” he said.

“Way tougher is how I would describe it. Shipping costs increased, however, it was the departure delays, extended transit times and port congestion at the other end that really challenged us, and it just didn't get any better all season.

“For example, during the latter part of this season, we have seen door-to-door transit times to the west coast of the US go beyond 70 days. Before Covid, anything over 26 to 27 days would be unusual and even last year it was only a few days extra. These increased risks saw caution from export customers.”

Meyer and Yen Ben lemons remain New Zealand's largest export citrus product, accounting for over 90 percent of the total citrus exported from this country. The main markets are Japan, USA and China.

“Most markets had their own Covid-related challenges this year,” Mr Albers said. “Japan, the biggest market, has prolonged states of emergency in main cities such as Tokyo that required most bars and restaurants to close.

“This had a big impact on food service demand and also impacted on consumer demand.”

Mr Albers said after an “off' year the lemon crop bounced back this year with a large increase in volume.

“However, some blocks were badly affected with insect damage and this limited the amount of fruit that could be exported, and put supply strain on the local market that continued right through the winter.

“We are just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel for lemons, with supply starting to ease back and demand increase as the weather warms up.”

Over the last couple of months the non-Satsuma varieties of mandarins kicked in, including Gold Nugget, Afourer, Richard Special and Encore.

“These mandarins fill a bit of a gap once the Satsuma season finishes, and with good demand for New Zealand-made, sit nicely alongside Afourer mandarins from Australia that tend to dominate that space.”

Over the next few months the summer citrus kicks in, consisting of late navels, tangelos, Valencia oranges, Encore and Afourer mandarins and Star Ruby grapefruit.

Spring and summer also herald the start of the new growing season.

First Fresh field service manager Matthew Carter said pest pressures in orchards had been about normal for this time of year.

“That said, I recommend all growers use crop monitoring to detect pests and ensure flowering and fruit set is not affected by unwanted pest outbreaks,” Mr Carter said.

“We have recently added additional resource to the First Fresh crop monitoring team to ensure we have enough boots on the ground to meet demand.”

Other packhouses, including NZ Fruits, took the August lockdown in their stride and did not skip a beat, moving from business as usual to an essential service business operating under Covid Alert Level 4.

NZ Fruits managing director David Fox said he was impressed by how many of his staff put their shoulders to the wheel and got on with it despite the uncertainties and trepidations of being in Level 4.

The Citrus NZ conference and AGM was postponed in September because of Covid. November 11 is the alternative date.

“We anxiously await developments over the next few weeks to see if this event can go ahead as planned,” Mr Albers said.“It would be a real shame if the event had to be cancelled two years running.”

PICKED . . . AND NOW FOR THE PACK: The First Fresh packhouse in Lytton Road has been a hive of activity over the citrus harvesting period. Picture by Liam Clayton
LOOKS GOOD, TASTES GREAT: Inspecting product at the First Fresh packhouse are (from left) product manager Phil Croy, packhouse manager Jamie Fox and head of quality control Vicki Mason-Takoko. Domestic demand for fruit has been high but Covid has made things tough on the export front. Picture by Liam Clayton
MAKING THE GRADE: Busy at the First Fresh grading table are (from left) label attendant Karen Coleman, quality controller Martha Kawhena-Nepia and grader Morgan Green. Picture by Liam Clayton