Complexities of the season – September 2021

By Jen Scoular

Having been in the horticulture industry more than 20 years, it is always a great catch up at the Horticulture conference. Held last month, it is a fantastic way to hear other’s stories, to congratulate or commiserate with colleagues and sectors doing well or not so well, and to get some awareness of how our sector and our growers are doing versus other sectors. Without a doubt, weariness and fatigue were well used descriptors during the event. 18 months into a global health pandemic, we are all feeling the effect of things being a bit more, or even a lot more challenging.

This will be one of the toughest avocado seasons for a decade. On the positive side we are expecting a similar crop volume to last season, and the size profile is looking good. We will see similar volumes for the fifth year in a row – a very welcome change from the volatile supply we have experienced in the 10 years prior to that.  It’s the demand side that is causing concern, and the route to market, with Covid disrupting global freight.

The Australian market has been a jewel in the crown for our industry, one of the highest paying avocado markets in the world. Until last year avocados from New Zealand were the only imports and our exporters have built up excellent relationships over 20 years in that market.

An oversupply of domestic avocados, sluggish winter demand and a supply chain disrupted by Covid has all hit Australia at the same time, as well as new lockdowns. Australian domestic production in the New Zealand window is forecast to be three times bigger than the 2020 season. So our avocados will need to travel further, to Asian markets, with greater uncertainty on freight. NZ exporters are great at building relationships, a driver of business. But without being able to travel, that relationship-building to maintain customers and make new ones, is very tough. New market channels would normally involve technical visits to ensure the integrity of product through to customer and consumer, which has not been an option.

Last month we initiated a “morning tea” zoom call for our growers. The 20-minute zoom at 10.00am on a Thursday morning included a quick industry update, and then we asked John Tyas, CEO of Australian Avocados to join us to give his view of what is happening in that market and what might be happening when NZ avocados arrive in September. He wasn’t able to paint a very rosy picture but it was great to get his expert view of the market.

The New Zealand market started with a hiss and a roar of harvest but large weekly volumes crashed returns and marketers are having to work very hard to restore some of that value. On the positive side, we are looking to attract some of the 30% of kiwis who don’t yet eat avocados. Avocados are offering amazing value at the moment, there is no better time for new consumers to be brought into the fold, and the NZ market group this week strongly supported the promotional activity being initiated in this market.

Marketers are preparing growers with forecasts of low returns, frighteningly low to those who may have only recently joined the industry. Those who have been around a bit longer acknowledge the risk involved in horticulture, the weather, the avocado tree’s propensity for irregular crops, labour, market demand and the rest.  As the industry body we want to engage with growers and provide them, and our stakeholders with support to help them through what will be difficult times ahead.

The horticulture conference reiterated that willingness to support our industry and we heard from a key note speaker about the need to talk about it, to seek help and to know the avenues available to provide that help. We have a section on our website on grower well-being with links to Farmstrong and the Rural Community Trusts in different regions.

I really appreciated the networking at last month’s conference, the acknowledgement that times are tough, that it’s okay to be feeling challenged and it is okay to openly share that feeling. Thanks to my colleagues who attended who provided that much needed boost, by sharing their stories, acknowledging that it’s not all rosy and asking, “how are you?” – and meaning it.

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