Challenges for New Zealand’s avocado industry

I thoroughly enjoyed being a guest at the recent Zespri event at Parliament, celebrating the success of the kiwifruit industry as they start this season’s harvest, forecast to return nearly $3billion. We look at those wonderful success stories sometimes quite lightly, when in fact the challenges they any horticulture industry goes through to reach such success have often been enormous. Having spent seven years at Zespri I am aware of some of those challenges, and am very aware we in the avocado industry will also face some enormous challenges as we stride to reach our audacious goal to be a billion dollar industry by 2040.

Normally there is a collective sigh of relief as we finish an avocado export season but this year it’s a different story. We experienced significant quality issues post November, especially for our avocados going into the Australian market. Avocados are unlike kiwifruit and apples which are all harvested at once, then coolstored until the market is ready. The tree is our coolstore, and post-harvest needs to be as efficient and fast as possible.

We faced a number of weather challenges, with higher than normal rainfall and heavy dumps of rain in Bay of Plenty and Whangarei. Rain during harvest poses additional problems, when retail orders need to be filled, and shipping timetables must be met.

Exporters brought in additional teams in market to repack or re-sort fruit to ensure they were delivering premium avocados at retail, but that additional step in the process will add cost to growers and if less that premium avocados reach the wholesale and retail markets, the reputation for New Zealand premium avocados is damaged.

I recently wrote that as an industry we need to step up to improve quality outcomes. We produced a best practice quality guide for growers a year ago and we have tested that against growers and many will say – oh yes, I do all those things, then they think a bit more or I ask directly if they do them and the answer is less positive, and often, oh actually I don’t do that. We are engaging with growers at meetings and field days over the next few weeks and will be reiterating that quality counts, quality pays, and quality cannot be compromised if we want to continue the growth of value across our industry. But quality needs work, it needs action and as an industry we need to make changes.

As Albert Einstein said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

We want different results, we want to grow in value and we want to have a reputation as an industry delivering premium avocados to consumers.

We also face the challenge that Chile is very keen to export their avocados to Australia, a market that until now has only imported avocados from New Zealand. Australia is one of the highest paying markets in the world for avocados, which has resulted from decades of concerted effort to grow consumption by New Zealand avocado growers and exporters, and their Australian counterparts. The value in the Australian market makes it very attractive for the large Central and South American avocado producers, and Chile’s season is very close to New Zealand’s so would be a direct competitor in the Australian market. Add to that the new plantings in Western Australia, also harvesting in the New Zealand season, and we need to all recognise that if our avocados are not the best on offer, customers and consumers will look elsewhere.

It’s not something only growers need to heed. Right across the supply chain, from growing through harvest, packing, cooling, transporting and arrival into the market, we must all play a part in optimising the way we do things to get the best results.

Our message to the industry is that we all need to start behaving differently right now to ensure we are setting our industry up for growth in value. We need to learn from challenges in quality we have experienced this year and make changes to avoid those going forward. We need to do that collectively, working together on research, sharing data and results and seeking continuous improvement.

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