Tasmania: Centralised packhouse and marketing the answer for smaller growers?

Within every sector there are big commercial growers, middle sized growers and the small growers. Each of these will face their own challenges and see different benefits in how they produce and market their produce.

Jeff Webster at Styx River grows cherries on his property and works closely with Li Wung, who also has cherry orchards, to grow and market the cherries.

We caught up with Jeff a few weeks ago to see how the season was going.

"The markets are flat," explained Jeff. "The early fruit was late and the late fruit came early, resulting in big volumes on the market. Chinese New Year is later this year and there are also huge volumes, 1000 containers a week, from Chile going into China at the moment. They can produce much cheaper than we can and so can get by on a lower price, where as we need more just to break even."

Although there has been substantial investment in the orchards in recent years, Jeff said more is still needed to make them more efficient and cost effective.

"Our packshed is one of the older ones with older technology and is much more labour intensive than the modern packhouses. This means it costs us around 3 AUD per Kg more to pack cherries. The flat market is such a shame as this is the best fruit that we have had in the last 5 years. We did a heavy prune this year which reduced volumes but increased quality. But we just can't get the price for top quality fruit and there's nowhere for any lower quality fruit to go."

He goes on to say that what is needed is more investment in the sector, "Long time growers are selling properties to investors who don't necessarily know how to grow cherries and very few are sold to Australians any more. The banks are not keen to lend money these days either."

The cost of labour is so high that Jeff reckons that a new packhouse is essential, but it come in at around two million dollars which is a big investment. A more mechanised packhouse could reduce the number of workers from 40 to 9, which would be a great saving in labour costs. It has also been very difficult this season to find enough workers to do the work.

"A good solution would be a central packhouse where a number of growers could send the fruit. Centralised marketing would also be a great thing for the smaller grower, these days some buyers want 200 tonnes or more and the smaller growers are missing out on opportunities," according to Jeff.

Despite this he remains positive and will continue to expand production.

For more information:
Jeff Webster
Styx River Cherries

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