With February crop estimates just in, the sector is anticipating a 13% lift on last year’s harvest to 177.5 million trays, with SunGold fruit exceeding Green for the first time.
SunGold tray volume is estimated at 99.5m and Green at 72m. This season also marks the first time the much-touted Red variety will be more widely available.
Early season harvest of SunGold kicks off next week in Gisborne.
Zespri global supply manager Alastair Hulbert says the crop volumes are also being met with high-quality, well-sized fruit, which is in part attributable to recent rain that fell after a significant dry period.
“Growers have really figured out how to get a good size, taste (dry matter) and yield off their SunGold vines, as a crop it is really starting to hit its straps,” Hulbert said.
Adjustments have been made to storage infrastructure to manage the boom in fruit volume. A boost in shipping capacity is on its way with the charter of an additional ship, the Cool Eagle, normally used for transporting bananas to Ecuador.
Zespri also announced the launch of the first of three specially built reefer ships, with the first sailing late last season.
The Kowhai arrived for a late shipment in October, and two other ships, the Karariki (Green) and Whero (Red), are also due to be commissioned.
“Given the logistics issues around the world, having dedicated ships is like a type of insurance and gives us flexibility,” he said.
While more fruit has been containerised in past years, the marketer is wary of overreliance on scheduled shipping services given the level of disruption being experienced at many port hubs around the globe.
“We have also ensured additional cool storage facilities are in place in markets,” he said.
In the meantime, Zespri executives are confident the volume growth will be met with equally strong demand, having had to juggle supplies of last year’s crop to meet surges in demand, including the European market, which surged from 55m to 66m trays between 2018 and 2019.
“Europe has gone gangbusters for kiwifruit and we had to allocate more there,” he said.
Spain is now one of Zespri’s three key markets, accounting for more than 20m trays sold a year, alongside China and Japan.
The early lockdowns against covid in China prompted a significant shift to online purchases, and Zespri has moved a significant portion of advertising away from traditional retail-focused media to online digital sales apps. Giant online retailer JD is now one of its three top retailers in China.
Japanese sales have also taken a leap in the past two years. Having typically been around the 20m mark, they jumped to 30m last year, with consumer preferences including both Green and SunGold.
Zespri has had an office in California established for four years to build more of a beach head into the US market, and Hulbert says this is providing promising if smaller volumes of about 8-9m trays a year.
“In all markets, there is a significant relationship between kiwifruit and wellness, particularly in the past year,” he said.
In the meantime, sales of the Red fruit were likely to be into Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and will be sea-freighted for the first time this year.
Early market trials using air freighted fruit have highlighted its shorter keeping properties, something crop developers have acknowledged and are working on.
“We are still seeing how we ship it and proving we can get it through the 8-10 week supply chain. It is almost more like a berry than a kiwifruit,” he said.