Avocado growers face difficulties getting their fruit to market as the export sector starts to gear up in the next few months.
Government help may be needed to facilitate air freight services so fruit can reach export markets in good condition and preserve New Zealand's reputation of quality produce, according to Chris Frost, supply manager for JP Exports and Fresh Direct.
Traditionally avocado exporters have used the cargo holds of passenger planes to get produce to long-distance Asian markets. The passengers helped subsidise freight costs to destinations such as Thailand and India, but freight-only flights cost three or four times more, said Frost.
Sending fruit by sea is another option, but shipping schedules remain unstable and delays at different ports make sea freight less attractive.
"Shipping from Tauranga is the fastest way to get Northland avocado to our markets. The sea freight journey can be anything from two to four weeks, which affects the quality of the fruit as it does start to deteriorate the longer the transit time to markets.
"We want our fruit to arrive as quickly as possible in great condition. Freight is something that needs looking into,'' he said.
Northland avocado shipments have been sent to Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and India through JP Exports.
The next export season opens about mid next month.
Last season exporters had picked the crops to a specific size, leaving about the third of the crop because of a small fruit size profile and customer size profile preference.
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This left growers with an abnormally high volume of fruit left on trees, which would usually have been sold to the local market during autumn.
"The Covid-19 lockdown took away independent stores and food service outlets such as restaurants and cafes. The only avenue left was supermarkets but demand dropped there as well.
"Some growers have chosen to leave the last of the crop to drop off the trees, which will have an ongoing effect for next year's crop as it inhibits tree health and the ability to set new fruit.
"Much of what we do is to resource the trees to produce fruit each year, but leaving the fruit on makes it more likely they will revert to being alternate bearing,'' Frost said.
Food service outlets are starting to open again, but demand is still low.
Growers got hit by a perfect storm, Frost said.
The impact on growers is dramatically shown in a comparison with April 2019 when 4300 trays were packed for the New Zealand domestic market. In April 2020, 119,000 trays were packed.
"There is a massive glut of fruit in the market and fruit left on trees because it was no longer worth picking.
"Some of last season's fruit has been picked and is just sitting in coolstores hoping for a recovery in the market.
"Meanwhile there are large volumes of new season fruit coming into the market,'' Frost said.
This has completely negated the early season value premium that those fortunate enough to achieve early maturity have enjoyed.
Frost looks after about 80 orchards all over Northland to as far south as Tapora, near Wellsford.
He said despite the immediate challenges, new avocado orchards are still being planted and developed.
"There has been a huge investment in orchards in the Far North and around Tapora."
Northland is becoming one of the main avocado growing regions in New Zealand and global and local demand has ensured it remains a growing industry.
"According to NZ Avocado Ltd demand still outstrips supply in the world, and good growers have been able to realise a good income per hectare, which still makes it an attractive investment.''
Frost said the Northland drought had not had too much of an effect on avocado fruit size profile, as the trees have a natural organic mulch in the form of leaf litter, which helps to retain soil moisture.
"It has probably affected fruit size for some growers but even trees without irrigation seemed to do well especially if they were protected by full skirts of canopy to the ground,'' he said.