Kiwifruit exporter Zespri will pay out all of its profit in dividends this year in recognition of the disappointing prices grower-shareholders were paid for their fruit.

Although total kiwifruit sales dropped below the magic $1 billion mark last year - because of the high dollar and problems with fruit quality - the co-operative still managed to return a profit of $26.4 million, roughly in line with the year before.

That was helped by an American asset sale which generated almost $3 million.

"The company's overall performance was creditable but it did not translate when converted back to New Zealand dollar returns to grower shareholders," said chairman Craig Greenlees.

Orchard gate returns to growers were down by 20 per cent for Zespri Green, 14 per cent for Zespri Gold and 10 per cent for Organic.

Greenlees said the high dollar was by the far the biggest cause of the lower returns. Despite hedging gains of $25.6 million, the exchange rate still knocked about $61.4 million off final sales.

Greenlees said seasonal issues had provided a further dampener, although these were generally part and parcel of the horticulture business. Lower-than-normal sunshine hours had resulted in some fruit being less tasty.

There had also been some ripening issues with the Zespri Gold, which had affected colour.

"We are evolving from an industry which used to be totally focused on how things look on the outside, to one which considers how they are on the inside."

Greenlees said standard company policy was to pay between 40 and 60 per cent of profit as a dividend.

The decision to pay 100 per cent dividends was a one-off that recognised this was an unusually difficult season and "the money would be more useful to the growers than the company, in the short term".

Greenlees was cautiously optimistic about this season. The dollar's fall had provided a boost and there was still scope to reap further gains if it continued to fall.

Another positive was that the season had started early, although that was offset when harvesting was slowed by weather conditions.

In most markets, there had been a strong start, although the key market of Japan had been slowed by an overhang of fruit.

At this stage, it was reasonable to forecast Zespri would be back above the $1 billion sales mark this year, Greenlees said.

"In terms of grower return, we'd be hoping to do better than last year."

Zespri's fledgling ingredients business, Aragorn, made a surplus of $231,000 last year, and the sale of a 15 per cent holding in American distributor David Oppenheimer netted a profit of $2.8 million before tax.

The company's total equity finished the year lower at $72.8 million, down from $77 million in March last year because of the dividend payment.