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Darren James Minter

The Weekend Australian, 29 July 2017

Orange boom times a good chance for navel gazing

Mildura orange grower Darren Minter is a happy man. After a cool summer, ripe oranges are hanging heavily from the trees on his farm near Iraak, Victoria, ready to be harvested.

But it is not just the size, quality and taste that is better this year. So too are the ­export prices, with Mr Minter’s top-grade navel eating oranges selling for $1000 a tonne, driven to record highs by unprecedented Chinese demand.

Six years ago China did not buy a single fresh orange from Australia. This year it will overtake Japan as Australia’s biggest export destin­ation, with 40,000 tonnes of ­oranges worth $70 million — about one-quarter of all orange ­exports — to be shipped to China.

The trade surge is the result of the obsession by middle-class Chin­ese consumers with eating healthy, safe food grown in Australia; a desire that has spread from infant milk formula and beef to now include fresh fruit.

Even major orange exporters such as the Mildura Fruit Company — bought several years ago by Chinese state-owned Bright Foods — can’t keep up, despite ­increased production from big growers such as Minter Magic.

It’s a remarkable industry turnaround for citrus growers such as the Minter family, who have been farming grapes, oranges and ­almonds along the Murray River near Mildura for four generations.

Six years ago, orange prices were so low — one-tenth of current­ values — growers were ripping out trees, leaving fruit to rot on the ground or feeding oranges to cattle. Many citrus farmers planted wine grapes instead.

“It’s been an amazing change after a very tough decade. In 2011 after the drought I was on my arse financially, wondering how I would pay the bills and ready to walk away,” Mr Minter says.

“If you had told me then that five years later my farm would have tripled in size (to 300ha), I’d be planting more trees and oranges­ would be selling for $1000 a tonne, I would have laughed.”

But for Australian consumers the export boom to China has a downside. While fresh oranges ­remain cheap in supermarkets — although the best fruit is all going overseas — the price of Australian-grown orange juice has climbed to more than $7 for two litres­. It is simply not worthwhile for Australian farmers to grow the lower-value Valencia juicing ­oranges for the local market when export prices are so high.

It has left local juice companies such as Berri and Daily Juice — both owned by the Japanese Lion-Kirin group — forced to import orange juice concentrate from Brazil. Stickers added to Daily Juice’s orange juice last month warned consumers that “a ­national­ shortage of oranges” had forced a switch to imports.

Moree farmer Dick Estens, who owns The Grove juice company, has resorted to planting large orchards of new Valencia trees on his own properties to ensure his business does not run dry.

“The Chinese are sucking in ­oranges from everywhere, it’s causing us a headache,” Mr Estens says.

“I’m not sure Australian consumers have realised that unless they pay more for locally grown orange juice, maybe $10 for two ­litres, it’s all going to end up with the rising Chinese middle class.”

Owner/SourceWeekend Australian
Date29 Jul 2017
Linked toDarren James Minter

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