Putting the cherry on top with export quality in domestic market

Fruit and vegetable retailer Harris Farms founder David Harris sent a clear message about varietal selection of cherries at a recent NSW Cherry Growers Association conference in Orange.CHERRY growers were sent a clear message to focus on larger, newer varieties which suited export at a recent conference held in Orange, because local buyers such as Harris Farms could match the price and were seeking the better quality fruit.
Nanjing Night Net

Harris Farms founder, David Harris, spoke at the NSW Cherry Growers Association conference, A Fresh Approach a Pathway to Success. He has stepped back from chief executive officer to let his sons – Angus, Luke and Tristan – share the top role as co-ceos, and Mr Harris, who resides in the Megalong Valley with wife Cathy, and retains a close eye on the fruit and vegetable side of the business, is as excited as ever about the industry.

He saw export and domestic variety and quality requirements as being largely in lock-step, and with subdued expansion interest in Tasmania, he said things were looking up for NSW.

“I’ve been involved as a retailer for 40-plus years now and have watched massive changes in cherry growing and in particular the NSW part of the industry,” he said.

He said 40 years ago, the industry would get excited about varieties such as the merchants and the burlaps and the early cherries from Young, but there was no longer a place for these soft, early varieties. The likes of the Hillstons and the Narromines have now taken that space, which he said was better for the industry.

“We don’t start our customers off on something that gives them a bad result. What we start them with now is really good cherries that have flavour and last a while… and that’s probably the biggest change I’ve watched over the years,” he said, with the exception of the emergence of exports. He said the growth of exports had changed the cherry landscape forever.

“A couple of years ago everybody got excited when 20 per cent of the cherries went overseas and it’s a lot more than that now.

“That presents a challenge for us – my cherry buyers – who are continually competing with the Asian markets. But that’s healthy too. Last year, overseas markets (50pc China and Hong Kong) took about $80 million worth of cherries.”

These export markets were quality focused, but the same fruit also suited Harris Farms’ shoppers. In contrast, he said the big supermarkets were more about price.

“They want to be able to sell at never more than $20/kg. It seems their favourite ticket is around $12.99/kg – they want to make a margin on that and it ain’t going to leave much for you guys.

“We don’t play very much in that space. We understand how the market works, but all we want is to have a fair go at some of that bigger, better fruit, and we can certainly match whatever the price is overseas.”

Punnets pose a cost concernPunnet packaging of cherries has caught on in supermarkets, but growers have raised concerns about the cost. They say punnets are a low margin option and the question was raised at a recent conference in Orange as to whether the big supermarkets should be challenged on this packaging. Growers felt punnets had been accepted because of big supermarket pressure.

However, Cherry Export Working Group chairman, Hugh Molloy, said growers would never be successful in challenging the supermarkets because it was suppliers who introduced the idea.

“(Supermarkets) say ‘we’ve been offered this by ‘X’ supplier’ and now they’re just buying what they’ve been offered,” Mr Molloy said. “It’s the growers and the packers mainly in Victoria that have caused the problem.”

Punnets meant suppliers were limited to a maximum of 400 kilograms of cherries in a pallet space, further reducing efficiency. Packaging was seen as an area where smaller retailers had an opportunity to present a better product.

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