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Italian growers key element in Zespri 12 month supply

Even though they are at opposite ends of the globe, kiwifruit growers in Italy and New Zealand are enjoying the benefits of Zespri’s efforts to keep the shelves full all year round with SunGold kiwifruit.

Richard Rennie visited Italy to see how the Bay of Plenty’s northern hemisphere equivalents are managing their growing and marketing.

The Lazio district about 50 minutes south of Rome by train is playing a key part in efforts to ensure the sun never sets on Zespri’s efforts to keep the fruit stocked in valuable produce shelves across Asia and Europe.

The China and Japan markets now account for about 16 and 12 million trays of SunGold fruit from New Zealand respectively a year. Growth in China in 2016 alone was 40 percent, and expectations remain high as penetration into the – relatively – smaller Tier 2 cities continues.

But the sweet-tart taste of SunGold has also found favour in the European market, one that has traditionally favoured the tarter taste of green kiwifruit.

BoxDario Vegetti, Zespri’s European supply chain manager, said the fruit’s popularity means filling in seasonal gaps within the supply calendar, something that New Zealand simply can’t achieve in one hemisphere.

The 6000 ha of SunGold in New Zealand is rapidly being followed by supply out of Japan, South Korea, and particularly France and Italy. Italy is on track to reach 2880 ha of SunGold, with 2277 ha in the ground, and 1700 in production, producing about 8 million trays in 2018.

Vegetti said the challenge for Zespri marketers in Italy and France is to also keep up its supply lines through to Asia. Shipping times from Asia to Europe of about six weeks are similar to the time it takes to ship from New Zealand to Europe.

Last season’s Italian harvest had 4.7 million SunGold trays grown in Italy and 400,000 in France, with about half meeting domestic demand, and half going overseas – with half of that ending up in China.

Growth curve

Lazio orchard netting: Protection from frequent hailstorms, and diffuses UV light to aid ripening and prevent sunburn to fruit. Photo/Richard Rennie.

As has been the case with New Zealand SunGold growers, it has been a rapid growth curve for Italian growers, with the area under cultivation more than doubling in only three years

For Italian kiwifruit growers, there is no Zespri single desk seller model. Rather most generally supply one of four large fruit suppliers, some which are themselves grower co-operatives.

Zespri has long-standing relationships in Italy, having worked with the co-ops for the past 17 years, building grower ties and growing the supplying area.

One of the largest co-ops, Apofruit, processes a variety of fruits including pomegranates, plums and blackberries. Kiwifruit forms about one-third of its business. ApoFruit processes 350,000 tonnes of fruit a year, turning over almost Euro 300 million a year.

Marco Mastroleo, Apofruit’s technical grower manager, told Bay of Plenty Business News there was no problem finding potential growers.

“There are many wanting to grow SunGold, it is a high margin, attractive fruit,” he said. “The challenge for us is to get the best growers growing it.”

Unlike in NZ, growers do not pay a licence fee to grow the fruit, but they are required to meet Zespri fruit standards if they wish to supply through one of the fruit companies.

With about 25,000 ha of kiwifruit in the ground throughout Italy, experience is not scarce and Mastroleo says growers of both hemispheres are united by their common experiences with Psa. Italian growers have tended to manage the disease better than their French counterparts. Responses to the disease have been similar to New Zealand, with all the Psa-afflicted Hort 16a Gold variety cut out, and regular copper applications to keep the disease at bay.

Pop outThe nightmare of New Zealand horticulture, the Brown Marmorated stink bug, has already established itself in the northern growing regions around Bologna, and growers in Latina, Lazio’s state capital, are bracing themselves for incursions closer to home.

“In the north the bug has a fruit for every stage of its lifecycle, which fortunately is not so much the case here,” says Mastroleo.

Labour demands

Italian growers share the same headache as Kiwi growers in finding suitable staff to complete demanding orchard work, despite Italy’s massive migrant issue. One grower said unless the government recognised the lack of workers, and invested in training up the pool of migrants, there would be no improvement in the situation.

And crop volumes are looking to grow.

Zespri’s established reputation in Italy and now SunGold’s proven track record for generating good consistent returns, is helping companies like Apofruit achieve some big growth targets.

“Planting SunGold is also seeing growers move away from quantity to quality, with bigger, better fruit required as Zespri standard, with incentives to motivate them to achieve that,” said Mastroleo.

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