Apple exporters are optimistic about shipping to an Australia market open after 90 years but some early failures last year are a reality check on the rules, says Pipfruit NZ chief executive Peter Beaven.

The apple harvest was due to get underway next month with an expectation for tens of thousands of cases to be shipped to Australia this year and a longer-term market opportunity for about 500,000 cases, Beaven said.

The Australian market could be worth $30 million or more to New Zealand growers in a few years, representing about 3 to 5 per cent of production, he said.

A ban on New Zealand apple imports had been in place since 1921 because of fire blight, with apple leaf curling midge and European canker added later, but was lifted last year following the settling of a case in New Zealand's favour the previous year at the World Trade Organisation.

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There had been some small shipments last year but three had failed Australian biosecurity rules - one for apple leaf curling midge, one for the midge and trash contamination and another for trash, Beaven said.

The midge was by and large not regarded as a pest in New Zealand because it stunted some growth that was unwanted and had to be pruned out, but it was an actionable pest for some markets including Australia.

Beaven was concerned about the issue of trash, which included leaf litter responsible in two of the rejections.

"One of the lots that failed had a piece of broken leaf 6mm by 2mm," he said. "That's half the size of your little fingernail and it's ludicrous to suggest that a piece of leaf that size could represent a phytosanitary risk to Australia."

The industry had not been able to get leaf litter removed as a reason to reject shipments and would have to take extreme care in packing this year, Beaven said.

"I think there is a genuine belief among some Australian growers that allowing trade in New Zealand apples will cause them to get fire blight, despite the fact that all of the science says the opposite."

New Zealand had shipped billions of apples to Taiwan, which remained free of fire blight, he said.

"We didn't make life easy for ourselves with those lot failures ... but this is a new season, we've had an opportunity to grow our crops with the Australian market in mind so I'm optimistic that we'll get a reasonable amount of fruit over the line this season.

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"I think everybody's had a reality check on how difficult the work plan actually is to get fruit through."

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry manager of plant imports and exports Stephen Butcher said the Australian requirements were clear.

"MAF is working with the pipfruit industry to ensure orchardists and packhouses can consistently meet the import requirements through the compliance programme for apples being sent to Australia."

The small shipments last year to test the market had proved useful, Butcher said.

"The trial shipments have been successful in identifying what we need to work on for the coming season, when exporters will have larger quantities of fruit coming on stream."

Beaven said late flowering would delay by up to a week a harvest which would normally get underway in mid-February.

The later harvest would reduce the early shipping window into the Asian market, although it had protected some growers from hail.

Exports accounted for about 16.9 million cases of apples and pears last season, with apples making up about 98.5 per cent.

Beaven was reasonably sure this season would see a smaller crop than last year, with flowering a bit scattered for some varieties and some removal of trees.

It was also considered an off-year for some varieties which tended to be biennial and produce larger followed by smaller crops.

FRUIT FACTS
- 16m cartons export forecast for apples and pears this year.
- $400m forecast apple and pear export value.
- 9000ha approximately planted in apple trees.
- About half of exports go to the European Union.
- 90-year apple ban in Australia is over.
- $30m potential value of Australian market.

Source: MAF and Pipfruit NZ