Monday, April 22, 2024

Zespri CEO holds high hopes for better times

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With dismal year behind sector, strong prospects lift hopes.
Zespri CEO Dan Mathieson is confident this season is looking far better after growers experienced one of the worst on record last year.
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Zespri CEO Dan Mathieson is hoping what has been a year to forget is now firmly in the industry’s rear-view mirror as the sector moves through the new season, with strong market prospects buoying hopes for better times ahead.

Speaking at Mystery Creek Fieldays, Mathieson freely acknowledged the challenges the sector has faced on almost every front over the past year, kicking off with last year’s damaging labour supply shortage.

“The shortages resulted in significant quality issues, which came on top of multiple weather events,” he said. 

Poor harvesting standards resulted in fruit manifesting damage weeks after harvest and prompted two major write-downs in crop values, partially attributable to the labour issues.

But Mathieson said the sector had responded to the sharp lessons of last season, with greater vigilance from harvest onwards resulting in a higher quality fruit reaching market.

“Growers are paying greater attention to harvesting in their orchards. In 2022 only about 40-50% of growers were present to view harvest. That has risen to over 90% this year,” he said.

On a recent Farmers Weekly visit to Seoul, South Korea, Zespri’s country manager expressed concern about the availability of fruit for the entire selling season, given the significant dip in fruit volumes this year, down to about 140 million trays.

Mathieson acknowledged it is likely there will be a shortage of fruit in the second half of the season that will affect all key markets. 

Come the 2024 harvest, the industry expects to face a significantly different scenario, with crop volumes estimated to soar back up to about 200 million trays, dependent upon weather conditions. With prospects of a more La Niña-type winter ahead, growers will be looking for typical winter frosting conditions to help lift bud levels. The growing condition was missing in last year’s prolonged warm, wet winter, which was followed by a diabolical spring that included a devastating frost in October that wiped out some growers’ entire crop.

Mathieson said overseas demand for fruit is strong again. Despite some softening of Chinese demand for some New Zealand-sourced products, including red meat, lately, he said it remains strong for kiwifruit in Zespri’s second biggest market after the European Union.

“Overall, the Chinese economy is still recovering [from covid] but our target consumers tend to be in the mid to upper income bracket and are wanting more fruit.”

Asked about the issue of illegally grown Zespri variety SunGold fruit in China, Mathieson said growth of the crop in the past year was slower than anticipated.

A year ago, estimates were the Chinese were now growing about 12,000ha of the crop, compared to NZ’s licensed area of 9000ha.

Mathieson said he is increasingly confident that Chinese government regulations on plant variety rights – which were upgraded a year ago – give Zespri more power to seize and trace crop found in retail outlets. Previously the fruit had to be identified on the actual vine.

A working group plans on visiting China soon to liaise with Chinese growers and authorities.

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