"Fruit growers should focus on quality"

Published: November 2018 | By: Guy Gaeta

Fruit growers are selling produce too early and sacrificing quality assurance. That’s a losing battle, says orchardist, Guy Gaeta of Orange.
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Central Tablelands cherry and apple producer Guy Gaeta is calling on all growers and retailers to lift their game to ensure consumers get the best fresh produce

EVERY Saturday I sell about 10 tonnes of apples direct to Sydney shoppers. In summer, I do the same with my cherries. The biggest supermarket in the country couldn’t sell that amount in six hours but it’s because I’ve got a motto: if I can’t eat it, I won’t sell it. I reckon all growers and retailers should adopt that motto. Unfortunately, there are some greedy cherry growers who, when the market is strong, will pick their cherries early and get in 10 to 14 days before the rest of us. That’s a disaster. 

“Australia has a growing population, we should be selling more fresh produce but we’re selling less. People don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad.”

Consumers end up with a bellyache from eating unripe cherries so they don’t buy them again, and then the market collapses. Last year, we were selling cherries for $50 a box before Christmas. Afterwards we couldn’t get $20.

Sometimes those rogue growers defend themselves saying they had to pick early because rain was forecast. That’s not an excuse. I’ve lost 70% of my crop due to rain rather than sell fruit that’s not ripe and delicious. Others claim they had to start picking early because they didn’t have enough pickers to get everything off the trees in that crucial four-day window. But they don’t have the right to sell fruit that’s not edible either. 

“At the other end of the scale, farmers who plant too many cherries and end up picking when they’re overripe are a problem, too. Customers don’t want cherries that taste like marshmallows.

All those farmers do is crucify themselves. They might sell their first 10 pallets, but they won’t sell the next 10. The fruit just gets flogged off cheap and then the market comes down. 
The average person eats about 160g of cherries a year. That’s only a handful – my grandkids demolish that in a few minutes. It’s appalling but it’s because people are having bad experiences. 
 
If we doubled consumption to about 400g per capita per year, which is nothing, we wouldn’t have to export cherries anymore. It’s the same with apples. If we got people to eat just one extra apple a year, we couldn’t grow enough apples for everyone.

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Every Saturday Guy Gaeta sells about 10 tonnes of apples direct to Sydney shoppers. In summer, he does the same with cherries.

We used to have the Farm Produce Act [repealed in 2009] to make sure produce was always good quality. Farmers have access to technology to test the brix [sugar content], starch levels and firmness of fresh produce, so it’s easy to set standards. But some growers didn’t like those rules and lobbied the government to abolish them. They wanted to pick when they wanted. It makes me so angry.

Having said that, retailers also have to take responsibility. They shouldn’t be buying poor quality produce but come Christmas, they’re so hell-bent on having cherries in their shops they buy anything. I’ve seen green cherries in all the big supermarkets. If they stopped doing that, the growers would stop picking them.

“I believe it’s because they know shoppers will return next week anyway for the family shop. It’s not like the days when we went to specialist greengrocers. If they sold bad produce, we’d realise they didn’t know their stuff and wouldn’t shop there anymore.

I’ve seen cherries that are going off on display and have let the supermarket know – but on returning later, they are still on sale. Sometimes it’s made me so mad, I’ve got a texta and written a message to shoppers: “Don’t buy this. It’s soggy and rotten”. 
 
My wife Sim has actually stood there until they’ve removed poor produce. I don’t like to see people spending their money on something they’ll have to throw away. I’ve taken photos of retailers marketing American cherries as Australian produce. They know if shoppers think a product is Australian, there’s a better chance of selling it. I find that attitude very sad. We fought for years to get fair labels so buyers could make informed choices. 

“I’m not against imports, but you can’t bluster people into buying something they believe is Australian when it’s not. I’m sick of sending photos to CGA [Cherry Growers Australia] or APAL [Apple and Pear Australia Ltd].
 
At my Saturday market stall, customers taste my cherries and ask what I do to make them so delicious. I do what I can to educate consumers so they don’t buy rubbish. A cherry’s got to talk to you. Most varieties should be a dark burgundy colour with a nice green stalk and a waxy finish. When they’re dull, they shouldn’t even be on the shelves.

Australia has a growing population, we should be selling more fresh produce but we’re selling less. People are walking away from fresh food because they don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad. Growers and retailers need to take a different stance.  

*Guy is chair of NSW Farmers’ Horticulture Committee, but these are his personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email: thefarmer@mediumrarecontent.com or write to: The Farmer, Suite 53/26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW 2009. If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.

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