Queensland farmers are reaping rewards by testing new strategies to secure overseas market despite Australia’s production disadvantage, writes SOPHIE FOSTER
One of Australia’s biggest pineapple growers has found a way to live with high costs, playing the local card for all its worth.
Pinata Farms’ managing director Gavin Scurr, who runs a third-generation fruit growing business with brother Stephen, has seem labour costs soar to almost four times as much per hour for staff than some offshore competitors pay for a whole day.
“In the Philippines they pay $6 per day for labour and we’re paying $22 per hour. For a crop of strawberries, 50 per cent of the cost is labour,” Scurr says.
“How we compete is we have supply and comparable quality. We’ve got the freshness advantage but we also grow good varieties that consumers want. We understand what consumers need and what their preferences are.
“The major supermarkets are very loyal supporters of local fruit growers, so how we’ve gone about it is to make sure we’ve always got supply so they don’t have to offshore.”
It’s a strategy that has seen the brothers become not just one of the biggest fruit suppliers to Coles and Woolworths, but also strong exporters to places such as New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The business turns over about $30 million a year, but Scurr is careful to remain realistic about opportunities for growers offshore, brushing aside any possibility of Australia becoming Asia’s food bowl.
“Australia will never feed the masses. It’s a bit of a nonsense because of our cost of production,” he says. “They can’t afford to pay what it costs to grow it here”.
But, he says, there are niche markets that can be tapped, linking up with growing affluence in Asia.
“They will buy Australian produce as a treat. High-quality mangoes, for instance, are very good eating. (But) it has to be absolute glamour and the perfect piece of fruit,” Scurr says.
That perfection could also see Aussie produce in gift baskets – a massive market.
“New opportunities are opening up with population growth (in Asia). If you can get a niche that’s 1 per cent, it’s significant.”
Another grower who has had to adjust operations to keep a foot in the export market is Marie Piccone, owner of Manbulloo Mangoes, which exports 2500 to 4000 tonnes of product to six countries each year.
“We’ve had to get as efficient as possible,” Piconne says.
“We mechanised a lot of things in the shed and the field to become as efficient as possible and also you have to have a product that the rest of the world wants.”
At peak season, her farms (two near Townsville and one in Katherine, NT) can employ between 150 and 200 people.
Asia, the Middle East and Northern Europe have become important export markets for Manbulloo – which has its head office in Brisbane – while a big percentage of local growth has come from contracts with firms such as Coles.
“Domestically, you can grow if you’ve got a good retail partner and are providing a product that tastes great and consumers want,” Piccone says.
View pdf file.