Australia’s table grape shippers say it will take a while to learn the full impact of the heat wave that has gripped the main export-growing region of Sunraysia for the past week, but initial indications suggest the industry will come through relatively unscathed.
Mildura sweated through its fourth day of temperatures in the mid-forties on Friday, and the fifth day of 40oC-plus heat.
David Minnis of grower-exporter M&A Exports, who has been in Mildura for the past three days, said that while it was a little early to gauge the full impact, it was clear some varieties were feeling the effects.
“We can safely say Menindee Seedless is suffering, and badly,” he said. “It’s a rather tender variety anyway, and those who haven’t got it off the vine are finding it’s changing colour from an acceptable green to golden, which makes it far harder to market.”
Harvesting in Sunraysia only got underway in the past few weeks, and Menindee is one of the earlier varieties more suited to the domestic market than export, but Minnis noted the Menindee crop had been “very good” this year, with “nice berry size” and “good colour”. Flame Seedless and Ralli Seedless have been harvested, while Midnight Beauty and Sable Seedless are still being picked.
Harvesting of Australia’s flagship export variety Crimson Seedless is “not far away”, according to Minnis, who predicted there might be small volumes available for Chinese New Year. But he noted that, like other varieties, lack of sugar in the fruit was holding up exports.
“The Crimson looks lovely, with nice long berries, good colour and crunchy texture,” he said. “It’s just not quite sweet enough, which is why not much fruit will get away for Chinese New Year.”
Suggestions that the recent heat wave would “sweeten the fruit” were wide of the mark, according to key industry sources.
“It’s too hot to sweeten the fruit at these temperatures as the vines just go to sleep when it gets to 40oC and above," said Brian Charles of major grower-maker-marketer Fresh Produce Group. "I don’t think the fruit will be getting sweeter right now, the vines will be shutting down."
Minnis agreed, but noted that the onset of warmer weather that broke a cooler-than-usual spring and start to summer prior to the heat wave, would help to “strip some of the acid” in the fruit.
The heat wave has also slowed down harvesting significantly, with picking scaled back to shifts of 06:30-10:30am, Minnis added. “Another problem we’re having with the field packing is when you pick the fruit you can't leave it out on the ground, because the bottom layer of fruit just cooks.”
Looking further ahead, Minnis and Charles agreed that growers with cooling sprays on their vineyards and access to water should should be able to ride out the heat wave. “Those without cooling sprays will have damage, particularly on Red Globe,” said Charles.
“As a whole, we should come through relatively unscathed, but we’d like the heat to go away,” added Minnis. “I expect there’ll be some damage; some sunburn in Thompsons and Red Globe, particularly in Robinvale.”
Sweating on China access
Besides enduring the heat wave, the Australian industry is also sweating on the outcome of negotiations to reopen the Chinese market to their grapes.
A revised protocol is in the pipeline, but as well as flagging extra pests of concern in its new pest list released last week, China is calling for all fruit to be packed in the packhouse, rather than in the field.
“We’re currently waiting for China to inform us officially of the changed protocol and then tell us whether they’ll send an inspector to Australia to monitor the protocol, or do inspections on arrival,” said Minnis.
“Given the increased cost of shed packing, we don’t want to fund the cost of bringing a Chinese inspector over here as well, as they inspect the fruit in China anyway."
Charles said the requirement to pack in the shed was “a setback”. “It is going to cost more to export. The concern is that very few growers are set up to do it, and it will take a lot of bloom off the fruit,” he said.
Once the protocol is confirmed, DAFF must audit around 160 growers registered to export to China before packing can commence, according to Minnis. “I wouldn’t expect to be able to get a Chinese inspector here before mid to late February,” he added.
While China remains off-limits, fruit has been heading to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and New Zealand. Fruit-fly-free status for certain regions of the Sunraysia has allowed airfreight shipments to Thailand to resume over the past few weeks.