Batlow apple growers hand over the reins

A fundamental shift for Batlow Apples


Horticulture
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Batlow Apples board has accepted a $10-million investment that forever alters its structure.

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Batlow Fruit Cooperative regional orchard manager Andrew Desprez with some of the new season Bravo now available. This the second year of Bravo cropping at Batlow.

Batlow Fruit Cooperative regional orchard manager Andrew Desprez with some of the new season Bravo now available. This the second year of Bravo cropping at Batlow.

BATLOW Apples board has accepted a $10-million investment that forever alters its structure.

The growers' co-operative, formed 96 years ago, this month transformed into a company, majority owned by foreign investors AusFarm Fresh Operations.

AusFarm Fresh now owns a 63.3 per cent holding in the co-op once known simply as “Batlow Apples”.

The investment did not require Foreign Investment Review Board approval as it was under the investment threshold and no land changed hands.

Now known as the Batlow Fruit Cooperative, general manager John Power said the fundamental shift would ensure the future of apple growing in the Batlow region.

He said the future for the Batlow Fruit Cooperative would be intensively planted orchards populated by new varieties.

"It's all about managing costs better and (increasing) yield," said Mr Power.

"Once we were looking at yields of 28 tonnes to the hectare, now we're dealing with 80 tonnes to the hectare."

He said Apple and Pear Australia put total revenue from a kilogram of apples at $2.01, while growing them cost about $1kg, before storage, freight and packing costs. Such tight margins demand economies of scale beyond what a growers’ cooperative is capable of, requiring major investment to glean gains in the production and processing sectors where possible.

The $10-million investment will focus on upgrading packing equipment and expanding apple-growing areas.

Mr Power said Batlow Apples had been an obvious target for investors with its "vertically integrated" structure.

It has a nursery business, a netting company supplying Australia's horticulture industry, a cider business, a bulk fresh apple juice plant, significant cool stores and packing houses and a marketing company operating out of Sydney servicing all of the divisions. Juice and cider will drive exports for the cooperative, while fresh exports are on the horizon, but not a primary focus, he said. 

Three brands produced by Batlow Cider Co are already retailing through liquor retail giant Dan Murphys.

Batlow Apples produces about 45 per cent of the NSW crop and NSW produces about 18 per cent of the total Australian crop. AusFarm Fresh Group has also aggregated two large family owned apple businesses in Stanthorpe, Queensland.

Bravo is a new strain of apple developed by the Western Australian Agriculture and Food Department in conjunction with Apple and Pear Australia.

Known by some as the "black apple" it is a deep burgundy colour and destined to drive Australia's exports, particularly to Asia.

Batlow Fruit Cooperative is licensed to supply Australia's east coast with young trees and last year, when Bravo was released, raised 15,000 trees in its greenhouses.

This year that increased to 22,000.

The new strain is being hailed as the biggest thing since Pink Lady, which ripens slightly after the new strain.

Batlow Fruit Cooperative also has rights to grow Envy, which Batlow Fruit Cooperative general manager Mr Power said is the "sweetest apple ever grown".

That strain was developed in New Zealand and patented in 2009.

Growers say one of Bravo’s advantages is that it will hold well on the tree, spreading the picking window across three weeks.

That holding time is mirrored in “normal” on-farm cool storage, meaning it stays fresh for longer than older strains, which makes the fruit commercially appealing.

The fruit’s ability to hold for longer means it is ideal for exports.

Investment from AusFarm Fresh Operations will continue a push at Batlow to modern processing, cutting costs where possible to maximise profit from tight margins.

Investment from AusFarm Fresh Operations will continue a push at Batlow to modern processing, cutting costs where possible to maximise profit from tight margins.

Batlow Fruit Cooperative regional orchard manager Andrew Desprez attributes part of Bravo’s appeal to the contrasting white flesh with the dark skin.

“It’s also a very moreish apple, you tend to eat it to the core,” he said.

Mr Desprez said for growers the apple ticked a lot of boxes.

“We’re growing them now at rows 3.5 metres apart and a 0.8m spacing,” he said.

“The idea is to fill that canopy as quickly as possible, whereas once upon a time plantings were six metres by six metres and about 277 trees to the hectare, now we’re averaging about 3571 trees to the hectare.”

Mr Desprez said Bravo suited the new growing conditions, in which trees are grown to about 3.5m and picking is done from a mobile elevated platform.

“They’re grown like a hedge now, we let dappled light in to help bud initiation and fruit colouring, but the yield is much higher, the new trellis systems are designed to hold at least 70 tonnes to the hectare,” he said.

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