As lychee season gets underway in Australia, growers will send their largest shipment of the tropical fruit to the United States this year, as part of the final year of a pilot program.
The program means that Australian producers have to meet strict biosecurity requirements that prohibit the use of certain pesticides and fungicides, which are banned in the US. But growers say this it has been a good opportunity for the industry, as the prices are slightly better than the domestic market and so far the feedback has been good.
"Currently in its third year that involves exporting lychees to the USA, with this season the largest shipment to date," lychee grower Jill Houser said. "Approximately 30 per cent of Australian lychees are exported and with the industry investing in data to support their export marketing plan, ongoing activity in this area is key to the investment program. The export market is a strong market and the Australian lychee industry has committed, export- focused growers."
Mareeba grower Marcello Avolio from North Queensland was the first farmer sending a record shipment - of over 798 boxes, which was three times more than last year.
The Australian lychee season is in full swing, but in terms of production, the warmer weather over the growing period has kept numbers down in some of the regions, but Ms Houser says overall, it should all balance out to a very similar season to last.
"It's been a long, hot and dry winter this year in the primary lychee growing regions around the Mareeba Tablelands, Rockhampton, Bundaberg and the Sunshine Coast," she said. "Lychees enjoy lower overnight temperatures and this year we haven't seen those drops, rather the overnight temperatures have been consistently high. In some areas that means that volume is slightly down on last year's season, however in other areas we are seeing higher volumes than last year. "
Australian production meets the counter season demand for lychees, with an added bonus of the availability for gifts of the fruit during and around the lunar new year.
It is expected the quality of fruit will be very high this summer. The fruit will be on the shelves until late February, with peak season is in December and January, which is when consumers may see lower prices, however Ms Houser anticipates pricing to remain consistent throughout the season
"Increasing awareness is a key driver for consumption and this is supported by evidence based consumer research recently conducted in Australia," Ms Houser said. "We believe the key to driving greater consumption of lychees in Australia is education and marketing. For many, lychees are seen as an exotic, unusual fruit they may not have tried before. We want to encourage people to try fresh lychees and show ways they can enjoy them - as a snack, as part of an entertaining platter, in curries, stir fries and desserts - there are many ways to enjoy this spectacular little fruit."
Domestically Ms Houser said lychees are also growing in popularity as people discover the taste and health benefits, adding they are a rich source of vitamin C and also have lots of antioxidants.
"Australians love lychees - they are the go-to fruit for summer entertaining and sweet and juicy," she said. "There is a core, strong, committed consumer base that absolutely love lychees with demand for lychees always there because of their seasonality - they are seen as a summer treat only available during the warmer months. Like mangoes, they are a fruit Australians look forward to with anticipation and have an emotional connection too. Lychees ripen on the tree which means they are perfect to eat fresh as a snack. Just peel and eat whole. Or they can be enjoyed in drinks, add a touch of sweetness to Asian cooking, are a magnificent decorative fruit in desserts and can also be frozen for a fragrant frozen treat."
Ms Houser also urges buyers not to be put off by the browning skin, as the fruit will still remain sweet, but says they should be refrigerated to retain maximum quality.