Cherry farmers see premium brand bear fruit

Published: June 2018 | By: Beverley Hadgraft.

A NSW Central Tablelands farmer’s clever branding exercise has shown how extraordinary results can be achieved when fruit growers work together.

Innovative Central Tablelands fruit farmer Fiona Hall in her apple orchard. Photography by Pip Farquharson.

FRANK Rossetto has been growing cherries in his Orange orchards for half a century. “Not very long. I’m just starting to warm up,” he chuckles. He’s renowned for his unfeasibly large fruit and passionate about keeping up his standards. 

He’s not so excited, however, about the other essential part of his business – getting that prized fruit to market – which is why, about five or six years ago, he joined the BiteRiot! brand.

Now, along with around 20 other growers in the Mount Canobolas district in the Central Tablelands, he sends his cherries over to neighbouring farmer Fiona Hall, owner of Caernarvon Cherry Co.


Frank Rossetto in his Orange cherry orchard.

Fiona takes care of everything Frank would rather not have to worry about – cooling, sorting, packing, marketing and exporting under the premium BiteRiot! brand. He pays her for the service, gets on with growing even better cherries and enjoys the increased profits that result. “I can still have control of the marketing if I want to but I prefer to leave it all up to her. She’s really good at it. It works out way more cost-effective.” 

More farmers should be doing it, Frank reckons. It benefits everyone if they contribute to one quality brand. 

PREMIUM CHERRY BRANDING BOOSTS PROFITS

Australian fruit growers are at a tricky crossroads. Theirs is the most expensive produce in the world – mainly due to high labour costs, if labour can even be found. In addition, increased productivity has led to an oversupply, exacerbated by the decline in fresh fruit consumption and competition from snack foods. Prices, inevitably, are dropping.

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Cherries are particularly difficult as they’re very labour-intensive and have to be picked by hand, plus they can’t be put to sleep in a coolroom like apples. Their fridge shelf life is about six weeks and the cost of getting them to supermarkets is “horrendous”, says Fiona.


The cherries selected for the premium brand commence in December and end in January, reaching a peak at Christmas.

BiteRiot!, set up in 2013 (trademarked in 2014), has both apples and cherries – and associated products – under its umbrella, but it’s the premium cherry branding which has really seen its growers increase profits.

It now handles around 10% of the total Australian crop, exporting to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Dubai. Vietnam has recently re-opened and China is in its sights, with Fiona attending Shanghai’s China Fruit Logistica trade show in May with the aim of establishing a direct customer base there. For the Chinese, presenting a gift of premium cherries is a sign of great prosperity. 
 
INVESTING IN HIGH-TECH MACHINERY TO ENSURE TOP-QUALITY FRUIT

Economy of scale means Fiona and husband Bernard – who also own the Bonny Glen Fruits apple-growing business – have been able to invest in groundbreaking technology to enable them to maintain their impeccable standards.

Five years ago they became the first growers in NSW to acquire a $2 million optical sorter which takes 10 photographs of each cherry with accuracy to within 0.2mm and picks out the largest and plumpest. A Firmtech machine ensures no soft fruit slip through, which means that once the product is in the distinctive BiteRiot! box, buyers have a guarantee of top quality.


Fiona among the apple boxes at her Central Tablelands fruit farm.

This premium packaging, says Fiona, can triple prices. The optical sorter has already paid for itself and she can look to update the technology still further and add fumigation facilities to their seven coolrooms. 

BENEFITS TO GROWERS OF MARKETING UNDER ONE BRAND

“BiteRiot! isn’t a cooperative,” Fiona says. “We’re an alliance of growers but saying that, we’re also a team because we all try to meet quality standards and supply a good customer base under the one brand.”

She had no problems getting other growers on board when she first mooted the idea.

“It’s been a great relief to those farmers who just want to grow and I think it’s created a more positive attitude. They’re stepping up to bring quality into the packing house, they’re more engaged, they’re planting more and they have more confidence.”

“Cherries were the bonus Christmas crop; now they’re giving people a good cash flow. We currently export between 40-60% and the rest go to supermarkets and independents. Everyone’s profitability has increased.” 

“Cherries were the bonus Christmas crop; now they’re giving people a good cash flow. We currently export between 40-60%."

LOOKING TO ITALY AND NEW ZEALAND FOR FRUIT-GROWING INSPIRATION

Fiona is just back from a visit to Italy where she met with apple growers – the final leg of a global agribusiness tour she has conducted as part of her 2015 Nuffield scholarship. That research has seen her looking at the way New Zealand apple growers have transformed their industry by rationalising, reinventing, enforcing quality standards and improving efficiency – growing 60 tonnes of quality apples per hectare as opposed to 40 in Australia.


Fiona checks some of the produce from her Bonny Glen Fruits apple-growing business.

Consolidating rather than competing, they have blossomed into a multimillion-dollar industry. In Italy, too, 6,000 small growers have enjoyed huge success by supplying their own 43 pack houses and adding value with products such as apple purees and chips. 

“They are the most cooperative, congenial and community-minded farmers imaginable,” says Fiona, who sees their success as confirmation that the BiteRiot! branding is the way forward. She loves seeing farmers working together and is concerned it’s something they don’t do enough of. “Some farmers think if you share information, you’re giving someone a competitive advantage but we need to share data and work towards a collaborative industry.”

“Some farmers think if you share information, you’re giving someone a competitive advantage but we need to share data and work towards a collaborative industry.” 

Australia is geographically challenged. Collecting data is difficult. The cost of orchards can differ hugely. But, believes Fiona: “Our neighbours shouldn’t be seen as competitors but the next person in the value chain.”

MARKETING AND PROMOTION IDEAS TO KEEP BUSINESS GROWING

Other ideas from New Zealand include taking out-of-season apples off the shelves completely in October and November to make room for stone fruit such as mangoes, peaches, plums and cherries. It would be good to get back to seasonality, to create expectation and excitement, and let every new harvest have its space, she says.


Bonny Glen Fruits apple orchards in the NSW Central Tablelands.

With her marketers hat on, Fiona also sees merit in the summer fruit producers putting their small budgets together to promote their produce cooperatively. It may even be that Australian farmers reach across the Ditch to join with New Zealand in promoting their clean, green image before the likes of Chile and Argentina start muscling in on that territory. 

The South American countries have already started delivering cherries by air freight, rather than shipping it, and – with their labour costs much lower – are a serious competitor in the cherry market. 

Of course, it also helps to educate consumers – promoting agritourism, inviting customers on to farms to pick your own and introducing them to the taste of in-season fruit, whether it’s a crisp, juicy apple, or a firm, plump cherry. Whatever the hype, a protein bar can’t even begin to compete. 

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