The Core Issues

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-By Mark Golombek

Fruit Growers Victoria is a not for profit, unlisted public company. It functions as a peak industry body and, as a cooperative, is owned by its 300-plus members. The organisation conducts trade and provides services, and any profit it makes must be put back into those services.

Serving as an industry association since 1 July, 2005, Fruit Growers Victoria became a merger vehicle for the Northern Victoria Fruit Growers Association and the Orchardists and Fruit Cool Stores Association, when members thought it about time for there to be a single state-wide peak industry body for both. With close to 90 years combined experience, the associations together represent pear and apple growers of North and South Victoria. CEO John Wilson was recruited two years into the merger, able to bring his background as a corporate manager and senior manager of rural supply companies and industry associations to the table at Fruit Growers Victoria (FGV).

FGV is based in Central Victoria. “Because we have an office and staff and resources, we provide the secretariat for other associations that aren’t so well off,” said Mr Wilson in a recent interview. “We take on the role, and provide the services to the committees of the other associations that don’t have staff. This helps to optimise usage of resources within individual committees. FGV helps with banking, mail, lodging of returns, facilitates meetings, etc, all on a fee for service basis.”

The association is also “agri-political, but also apolitical.” As Mr Wilson explained, “We will poke any politician in the eye, and we will also give him a kiss on both cheeks. The goal is to build meaningful relationships with the decision makers in government for the betterment of business lives of fruit growers. You catch more flies with honey then vinegar.” The organisation also develops policies to be brought before members of parliament and will lobby against laws or policies that are not in the best interests of its members.

12 months ago, for instance, a significant issue arose regarding legislation involving the importation of New Zealand apples. Australia has strict quarantine laws, seen by some as trade barriers. There was a longstanding dispute between Australia and New Zealand that ended up at the WTO hearings, which Australia eventually lost. So Australia was forced to let the produce in. The quarantine legislation goes both ways. Australia is “very, very vigilant on anything coming into the country; in fact about 13 per cent of shipments last year were rejected because they had trash in the boxes,” said Mr Wilson. “Trash is one of the vectors of the three pests or diseases that we are trying to keep out. They even found a live leaf-curling midge six months after it was picked and put in cold storage. And that is what we are trying to prevent.”

FGV also turns its attention to production issues. Victoria recently faced some issues with flooding. The flooding was not for a lengthy period of time; however it had effects both positive and negative on the pear and apple industries. “Pome fruits are resilient to flooding, whereas Stone fruit and cherries are not,” said Mr Wilson. “It was the best growing year for 15 years due to the floods. Trees were responding to years of drought. They were of very good quality, and produced a large crop. The irony of this is that it was a disaster for pear growers. Too much good fruit meant that the price crashed below the cost of production. The market was over-saturated. That said, it was a good year for apple growers.” FGV’s members produce around 50 per cent of the apples and 90 per cent of the pears in Victoria.

One of the crucial services that Fruit Growers Victoria provides for its members is CropWatch, a division of the organisation which provides Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPDM). IPDM is an environmentally friendly way of controlling pests and diseases without resorting to chemicals. Traps laced with cards sticky with pheromones attract the insects of concern, including the Pear and Apple moth. FGV monitors temperatures necessary for a hatch, and also keeps the beneficial insects alive while eliminating those that are harmful. “Chemicals used are the mildest available,” Mr Wilson shared, “and are biodegradable, which reduces the effect on the environment.”

Naturally, production methods are going through constant change in order to maximise potential. “Less wood, more fruit” is the strategy used. Traditional Australian orchards going back a century had 700 to 800 trees per hectare, while modern apple orchards produce 3,500 to 4,000 trees per hectare. This is achieved through closer plantings and using dwarfing root stocks. Management techniques reduce the vigour of the tree as it grows – comparable to Bonsai growth by pruning the roots. Plant hormones also reduce the vigour. “When trees grow, the apical bud produces hormones which encourage growth, but if you tie branches down, it restricts the flow of plant hormones which restricts the vigour.” Through this process you end up with a “Pedestrian Tree,” a tree that you can work from the ground. “You end up growing the same amount of fruit per tree, but end up with three to four times as many trees per hectare. Only half the orchards in the country have modernised, and the other half had better get a move on!” A traditional orchard would take 10 years to mature into full production, but with a modern orchard only four years is needed.

Recently, the Murray Darling Basin plan has become a cause for concern. It connects two major river systems – the Darling River and the Murray River, which flows through four states, coming out into the Southern ocean 100 kilometres from Adelaide. Adelaide has 1,000,000 people drawing its water from the Murray River. It is a very expensive river system subject to extractions over a large number of years, and environmental degradation has become an issue. So, in 2007, the Howard government enacted a water act to improve the environmental quality of the river. As of 16 April of this year, a new draft plan was tabled. This will go back to the MDB authority which will produce a plan to take to the federal government. FGV is currently managing a $5,000,000 upgrade to reduce condensation levels, in an effort to reduce extractions.

Extraction levels must be monitored through entitlements. “With enough water you get 100 per cent of your entitlement, but during dry years that number would drop. In really dry years the price of temporary water goes up. This means that it is not economical to buy. However, if you have permanent plantings like FGV does, you have to buy it to keep your trees alive. So, it wasn’t about making money, it was about staying in business.”

Another way of looking at this issue would be through the eyes of an irrigator – in this case a dairy farmer. In a time of drought he looks at world prices for milk. When the price he gets for selling his water on the temporary market exceeds the profit he can make selling milk he will move his cows out, shut down operations and live off selling his water. It’s a simple economic decision for the irrigator. “But, if they don’t have that water anymore, a number of those players are taken out of the game. Then there is less water to go around, which means that the price of temporary water in the next drought will be higher. An economic set of dominoes are being set up as a consequence, and that is a very big danger for the future of our industry and for the MDB plan.”

So, how else is FGV looking to modernise operations and maximise the potential of its members? The organisation plans to further develop the Integrated Pest and Disease Management service. CEO John Wilson has also been commissioned to conduct a review of the future representation of the citrus fruit in Victoria. He wrote a paper that will be the springboard into a broader discussion on the issue. New technologies, of course, present new opportunities for the industry, and FGV is investing in developing an iPAD application for the downloading of field data. “This will go back to our central systems so that the people in the field will not only be able to do their bug counts, but also photograph them for the iPAD and then that info can go straight back to FGV. Bugs can be identified. Instead of it being a one or two day turnaround on the feedback to a grower, it can be same-day turnaround which will save a lot of money.” This kind of technological advancement will likely have a place in the fruit-growing industry for the foreseeable future. “Resisting change,” as Mr Wilson puts it, “is like holding your breath – if you succeed, you die.”

Another part of FGV’s service to the public includes its “Fruit for Schools” program, the aim of which is to encourage children to eat more fruit. “When we go into schools we find there is always a child who has never eaten an apple! This can be due to nutritional ignorance. They do not know that fruit grows on trees! They grow up in inner cities and a lot of them have never seen a fruit tree. When asked where the fruit comes from their answer is usually ‘the supermarket.’ The program is so fundamental, but so very important, and what we are trying to do is develop the next generation of fruit eaters.”

Ultimately, John Wilson would like our readers to know that, “there is a very positive future for fruit growing in Victoria. We just got out of a very difficult climatic period with challenging economic issues. The fundamentals of soil, water and climate conducive to growing very good fruit in an economic way is still there, so the industry will not only survive, it will prosper! But it has to change.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:31 PM AEDT