Darcy Balle - Balle Bros Group

"International market access critical for New Zealand Onions"

One of New Zealand's leading fresh produce companies says market access and remaining relevant on the international stage are two big challenges for the country's horticulture markets, which are dominated by exports. The Balle Bros Group, just like a lot of the sector's investment, is in export markets due to the country's domestic population relative to its productive capability. As a country with a great productive capability but a relatively modest population the argument for free trade is well understood in New Zealand as it is a source of more jobs and greater incomes.

The onions are brought in to the facility then sized and put in bins

"Given our population of 4.6 million people, and an agrifood sector that can support more like 50 million people, we have a responsibility to meet demand for food outside of New Zealand," Managing Director Dacey Balle said. "If you look at what we do on an annual basis, 50 per cent is for local consumers and 50 per cent is international consumers. Obviously we place great value on local consumers as it provides us with steady demand all year but our performance in international markets generally define the success of our season. Therefore as a company, as an industry and as a nation we are aligned in our desire to see better market access to both our traditional customer markets and to new customer markets."

They get topped, sized and quality controlled before going into bags

Balle Bros is proudly a family business, and Dacey is the youngest of twelve siblings, seven of whom work in the business. A total of 20 family members are amongst a complement of 350 permanent employees. The customer base that Balle Bros serves means that focuses most of its production on potatoes and onions but also grows carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and pumpkin.

New Zealand has a strong history of vertically integrated value chains, borne out of a requirement for cohesion in the supply of food to customers in offshore markets as far away as is possible. In this context, whilst primarily a farming business Balle Bros has always strived to work as close as possible with value chain partners and end users to ensure the we are producing what the market requires. This has lead to downstream investment in packing, processing, marketing and distribution activities. For example of the 1,600ha of potato production that are under the company’s own control with more than half of its potatoes being processed into French Fries at the company's own factory. The company grows 1,200 hectares of onions, which yields 60,000 tonnes and the majority is for export. Mr Balle says the New Zealand industry is focused on a high quality product with exceptional storage characteristics, hence the backbone of the operation is the ‘Pukekohe Longkeeper', which makes up 60-70 per cent. He says that variety has a very long storage life of around 7-9 months. It is quite pungent, has nice skin and allows access to the northern hemisphere in their off season, particularly Europe.

Pallet of onions under the Clipper Trading brand

“In relation to our onion business we have a very important role to play in ensuring continuity of supply at a retail level" Mr Balle said. "We are very respectful of the relationships that our packers have with their retail customers and we support with their off season requirement, so they can offer 12 month supply.

He says that has allowed his company to pursue other opportunities closer to home in Asia, where a change in living situations has increased demand for higher quality produce that New Zealand can produce.

Simon Vale, Account Manager at Balle Bros

"If you look at the volumes that we do, we are still only operating at the margin," Mr Balle said. "We are not feeding Asia, but we are feeding a small percentage of the population that wants a very high quality product. We are not looking for a mass market play in Asia." But access to some countries is not always smooth. China can access the New Zealand markets but it is currently not reciprocated. “We hope that this situation changes soon” he adds.

At home, he says there are a number of challenges, including getting people into the agriculture sector and gaining land access for farming. But a main concern is water supply. Mr Balle admits that the sector often gets caught in the middle of the political debate, with opponents concerned about the amount of water being used in other agriculture areas such as dairy.

A container is filled for shipping to Indonesia

As a third generation company, Mr Balle says it is important to develop and remain relevant to consumers, but at the same time you need to be careful not to move away from the traditional strength in onion production, which is quality over quantity. But the CEO says he sees a slight shift in the type of demand especially in Europe.

"What we are seeing is that continental Europe is becoming more sophisticated and wanting special products," Mr Balle said. "Different sizes, different varieties, red onions. But if we were looking at the next best thing in onions, we'd be looking for something that had the best of both worlds in terms of high quality, long storage and higher yielding than what we have now."

For more information:
Kathy Cowell
Balle Bros Group
Tel: +64 9 2370892

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