The avocado industry is testing technology to prevent fruit ripening in transit that it hopes will open up markets in Europe.
Two thousand trays of fruit were exported to France in December packed in shipping containers fitted with dynamic controlled atmosphere equipment - technology which creates a low-oxygen atmosphere.
A shipment is on its way to Honolulu, and two more containers will be sent to France to help determine the ideal conditions for transporting avocados for more than 20 days.
New Zealand Avocado Growers' Association chief executive Jen Scoular said the European market could be hugely important. "It's not just Europe, it's also Russia ... We are forecasting reasonably significant increases in volume, so the more markets we have available, the better."
The technology is being used to set the oxygen level in the container at the outset, but could be adjustable in transit if it proves worth the additional expense.
'We can't ever undervalue the amount of effort that we have to put into retaining our markets. Building new markets is certainly a high priority, but retaining value in our current markets must also be a big part in our strategy."
The trial is being monitored by Plant and Food Research in association with the Avocado Industry Council.
Scoular said the association was keen to see greater exporter collaboration to achieve more sustainable returns for growers.
"If an exporter has not provided up-to-date forecasts on returns or is unable to talk about their longer-term market strategy, growers should question whether that exporter is their best business partner."
The Avocado Industry Council is engaged in a project with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to promote agreement on chemical-residue levels in six Asian countries and is working with government and industry to assess the potential for exports to China and India.
The export-season harvest runs from September to February and Scoular said it was expected to be about 3.7 million trays, with Australia accounting for about 75-80 per cent. Exports in the 2010/11 year were worth $67 million.
"Early in the season Australia forecast their crop would be light because of adverse weather," Scoular said. "But the actual crop out of Australia was significantly higher, so when New Zealand avocados arrived across the Tasman their market was swamped and prices fell."
Cold weather before Christmas had also resulted in less demand.
"I think there will be people who are losing money ... There are others who will do reasonably well. I think it's a bad year for growers because the expectation was high."
* Atmosphere controls are being tested to ship fruit to more distant markets.
* Computer systems monitor and control the atmosphere or levels of gases present in a container.
* Sensors measure the stress level of the avocado or the level of oxygen deprivation it can handle before being damaged.
* A control unit then sets that level of oxygen in the container so the fruit can hibernate.