A Victorian table grape producer admits that it may be a challenging season after some unfavourable weather conditions over the past few weeks and the labour shortage situation - but there are also plenty of opportunities created by the demand.
Budou Farms will continue to supply Japan and Hong Kong, with strong popularity in these markets, as well as some interest from the Philippines and Vietnam, and co-owner Enrique Rossi says picking should start in just over a fortnight.
“This growing season started perfectly with good rain in early spring and warm steady weather, however, as the seasons progressed, so did the weather - and it was not as good as expected,” Mr Rossi said. “Cloudy days with mild temperatures, followed by windy and cold days and then a short heatwave. This has been the pattern for the year during the last four months, but this isn't new for Sunraysia - just not what we would like. We expect to start the first or second week of February harvesting with the best Brix level that our customers and consumers enjoy every year.”
He added that compared to last year, there have almost been no dust storms, but the consistent wind is delaying the harvest timing slightly.
“Our crimson seedless got a very nice colour, as this weather pattern really enhances the natural development of colour, but the Brix is not quite there, compared to a normal year,” he said. “We might be a week or so late, so consumers can enjoy the right ratio of sugar/acid, that makes the Australian grapes so popular in Asian markets. Size overall is good, but in some wind-exposed areas there might be a little bit of variability within the cluster, as the wind affected the pollination.”
To be COVID ready, Budou Farms will start doing some shed packing, meaning the company has designed a few lines and has a new system in place for workers and the fruit, involving isolating work stations. But Mr Rossi says they will still keep going mostly with the traditional system of field packing.
“It might be that in the near future we will end up shed packing 100% of our fruit, as this is also more attractive for workers, but our high labour cost makes it challenging,” Mr Rossi said. “So, we are always looking for new technologies that can increase productivity.”
However, the main issue will be the labour shortage that has been caused by COVID-19 border closures. Budou Farms says it is important to get the crop off the vines before any major rain event, as we are under la Niña watch.
“It is frustrating the lack of vision from the Victorian government that gives preference to flights into Australia for a few tennis players, for a few shows in Melbourne, rather than have a travel bubble zone with some regions in the pacific that have zero or near zero COVID infections, allowing local economy in regional Australia to keep afloat and be ready for the near future.”
At the same time, Mr Rossi says Australia is in “pole position” as it has so low rates of COVID, as well as great clean and environmentally-friendly fruit production to serve all the markets.
"I think this is a huge advantage this year, as its competitors got higher infection rates and more challenges,” Mr Rossi said. "It might be an extra challenging season ahead, but as a grower, we will just have to be more innovative to gain productivity with less human resources and despite the extra barriers due to COVID restrictions on workplaces. We have the demand from all markets, as well as the product.”