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In just 14 years since taking over the Tatura-based family business in 2003, Prima Fresh owner Gerard Alampi, the third-generation fruitgrower has taken it from a small family concern, packing around 8,000 bins primarily for wholesale markets, to a vertically-integrated business, with 300 hectares of orchards, producing approximately 35,000 bins of apples, pears and stonefruit a year and packing nearly double that.
Into the future
The company's next project for growth is the opening of a new packhouse
on the Midland Highway at Ardmona. This will put Prima Fresh in a small group of state-of-the-art packing facilities (with 9 Mile Fresh) both dramatically reducing unit costs and increasing its ability to meet any growth in demand.
Although the first stage is wholly Prima Fresh-funded, Gerard said it was a staged design with opportunities for co-investment at each stage. Planning and design are well under way with the intention that the first stage will be up and running by the end of next year with the capacity to pack over 70,000 bins of pome and stone fruit.
To support the business to grow the old packing shed will be replaced with a new packing shed.
The additional bins will come from Prima Group growth – growers are growing and planting more – and there are plans to introduce more growers to the group.
“It will be my ultimate dream of what will be the best packhouse for my business based on everything I have learnt in 12 years of packing fruit, with controlled-atmosphere storage, water flumes, pre-sizing and multiple packing lines.
“Every year since we commenced supplying supermarkets direct we have had great opportunities for growth in our business. We have worked very hard to keep up with demand, and premium quality with what we grow and supply. We have been talking of upgrading but it is very expensive and it has taken us several years of research and understanding to develop the best fit solution for our business.
“Thirty to forty per cent of our costs are labour, compared to 10-15 per cent when we started, and we need to do something to reduce costs. This will give us more volume with no reduction in staff.”
He admits he took some convincing that the pre-sizer could deliver the extra productivity to justify the investment.
“It seemed like double-handling to run them through and then have to run another line to pack them,” he said. “But then when we ran the fruit through again and had 90 per cent plus packouts it made sense; you could see it cut costs by cutting out unnecessary inventory sitting around waiting for an order. If we pre-size we know what we have before we start selling and we are putting the right fruit in the right home. You could turn an order around in a few hours.”
Collaboration not competition
Gerard said he hoped the new packing facility would also provide an opportunity for a more cohesive supply and marketing approach among the Goulburn Valley’s many growers, creating new opportunities and efficiencies for other growers.
The heritage of Prima Fresh is captured in this 56-year-old Packham pear block.
He said rising labour costs, increased compliance costs and more extreme weather had all eroded the industry’s margins and ability to reinvest.
“The intention is not to put anyone out of business – the intention is to encourage the industry to work closer together,” he said.
“We’ve created a buyers’ market. We are price-takers. The margin is so fine you need volume – a lot of the time you are just turning the money over. Europe was similar but they collaborated and all got together and worked out their differences.
“As farmers we are not competitors. We are looking at it the wrong way. We need to look deep inside ourselves and ask ‘What are the obstacles to going forward’, and the best way to do that is in groups.
“We have an oversupply of fruit. We need better marketing strategies, perhaps a marketing cooperative in each region and strategic planning to control over-supply. If we work together we have the opportunity to grow all three markets: supermarkets, wholesale and exports.”
He said change would take small steps and would be driven by the younger generation.
“There are lots of young people coming through. That’s good for industry to help drive it. We need the fathers and uncles to direct from experience but the young people have the drive and the vision and the passion.”