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"It's all about being diverse and trying other things in the business because you can't stand still"

The Victorian stone fruit grower selling main orchard to focus on other 'exciting' opportunities

A Victorian fruit grower is in the process of transitioning out of growing, which will see the company sell its main orchard to focus on other opportunities within the produce industry.

The Manto Produce & Providore business has three parts; a fruit-growing orchard, dried fruit manufacturing and a providore store that sells local produce. Owner John Mantovani says his family has a long history in the farming side of production, but this is an exciting new chapter.

"While we will have small parts of our orchard, we are transitioning out of growing and have just sold our main property," he said. "After 30 years, we made the decision to part ways with that. My dad is close to 70, and because we have the store and dried fruit projects, it just makes it hard to juggle all three things. We thought long and hard and with the way the industry is going, as a small grower, we could be pushed out. In the next 10 years, I believe it could just be the big sheds and smaller growers send to them to pack it and send it off under the one label. That's the way it's going and the way that the supermarkets want it to go. We have also had some bad weather and storms, so that's why we came up with the (diversification) idea so we could use the fruit. I am proud of what we have achieved, and although we are getting out of the growing side of it, without having that as a foundation, we wouldn't be where we are today and have the opportunities ahead of us."

The farm currently consists of around 200 acres of land in Cobram, in Northern Victoria, growing peaches, nectarines, apricots, and apples.

"People usually go nuts for the yellow Clingstone Peach," he said. "They are well known around the Sydney and Melbourne markets, and we send some through to Brisbane as well. People see our box and we have a good name, and people look forward to it around Christmas, when we have our first variety, right through until March."

He added that it was a tough start to the season with rain in early Spring, which particularly impacted and damaged the apricots. Since then, it has not been too bad, but Mr Mantovani says the wind and rain have just come at the wrong time, and in addition, consumer demand has not been as strong as in previous years as the cost of living.

"We had a bit of wind that marked our Clingstone peaches just before harvest, so we couldn't use that as our premium line anymore," he said. "Hopefully, the weather is kind to us to finish the season. But I think demand has dropped off a little bit. Price-wise it is okay, but it could be better. We have a lot of increases (in production costs) that everyone has been hit with. That has made it hard because if you are still getting the same money for our produce but everything like freight and everything goes up it makes it tougher, along with supermarket expectations of growers. All of that is what, over time, could push some growers out of farming."

New ventures moving forward for the family-business

Mr Mantovani and his wife run the Providore Store in Cobram, which sells locally produced fruits, and products made from fruit. He explains that the concept of keeping the produce local is very popular in the area.

"We have a good connection with the other local growers around, so we supply all the cafes and wholesale and everything like that, including sporting clubs and restaurants in the surrounding areas," he said. "Our shop opened around six months ago and features local products. We do have to get some stuff out of Melbourne that we cannot grow around here. We have also linked up with other companies as we have a de-stoning machine, so we take the seed out of the plums or apricots, for example, and send them in halves so they can make jams and products. It's all about being diverse and trying other things in the business. I think that's very important as a business because you can't stand still. The response from the local community has been good because we push local with all the growers and producers we work with and the council has been good also."

The other side of the business is vacuum-dried fruits, which was set up about 3-4 years ago, and uses second-grade or waste fruit. He explains that Manto has just linked up with some new partners, Pipan Foods, which is based in Melbourne, which started with the manufacturing of their kids-sized apple chips, called 'Chippy Apples'.

"We then turn them into chip form," Mr Mantovani said. "So, we have had a product out on the market for about 12 months now, which are apple crisps; we don't add anything to the fruit, it is simply vacuum dried. We believe we are the first to use that technology in Australia. We can also do your normal dried peach, apricot and all stuff like that also. We are currently doing a lot of trials on all that sort of stuff, as well as citrus garnishes and all that stuff. It has been a rollercoaster ride for us, and a few hurdles through the COVID period, but (our partners) have strong marketing experience behind them, which is where we struggled in the past. So, we have undertaken this project and become partners with Pipan to have more national and international sales."

John Mantovani
Manto Produce & Providore
Phone: +61 458 187 03 

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