With small volumes of Sumo Citrus, Gold Nugget and Tang-Gold mandarins set to hit the market this season, Freshmax Australia is peeling ahead of the curve when it comes to consumer trends Down Under. But the company’s ambitious planting program includes an export strategy too, as GM for category and integrated supply Andrew Maughan tells Freshfruitportal.com.
With its “lumpy-bumpy” skin the Sumo Citrus-branded mandarin is a far cry from the smooth citrus normally seen at the supermarket, but that’s exactly the kind of point of difference Freshmax is looking for.
After all, Maughan says the company is now reaping the fruits of labor that has been ongoing for the last 10 years to grow and market protected varieties.
It’s a philosophy that spans a wide range of produce items under the group’s umbrella, and in citrus the big bet has been on seedless cultivars.
“We think that seedless easy peelers will become market standard in Australia in the not too distant future, and it’ll be non-negotiable to have seedless or very low-seeded fruit in this marketplace,” the executive says.
“In Australia we’re only just starting to get these seedless varieties into commercial volumes.
“There’s been exceptional growth in demand for easy peel and seedless fruit. It’s a rapidly growing category through North America, Europe and the U.K.”
Freshmax licenses the Sumo Citrus variety from Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co.in California, and the ultimate goal is to be a counterseasonal supplier back into the North American market while also working with the partner to aim for year-round supply into a variety of Asian countries.
“This year we intend to be doing a few shipments in a small trial back into North America with both airfreight and seafreight. We did a little bit of airfreight last year, but that becomes cost-prohibitive when you start talking large volumes.
“We’ve commenced some small export programs into Southeast Asia, and done more work with developing export markets.
But with only around 25-30% of the 150 hectares of Sumo Citrus actually producing fruit, the bulk of volume will be staying in Australia for now.
“There are some trees that are just being planted now, so peak production is not going to hit with these current plantings for another four to five years’ time,” Maughan says.
“Sumo Citrus has ranged with Woolworths supermarkets in Australia for the last three years – it’s been exclusively through that retailer up to this point of time.
Going for gold
In mid-August, Freshmax will also start supplying another rough-skinned mandarin variety called the Gold Nugget.
“The Gold Nugget is quite a unique looking bit of fruit. It’s a later season maturing variety that’s gone away from the typical easy peelers going around.
“It does have a coarse textured skin. Initially it was a real negative or challenge to the variety as it’s not that smoother, fine-textured skin.”
When trees are in the juvenile stages, as many are now with 20% of the 100 hectares in production, the fruit tends be lumpier.
“But once the tree gets a little older it does settle down and produces a smoother piece of fruit. It is lighter in color than an Afourer or a Murcott is, but it creates a really good marketing point of difference,” Maughan says.
“It doesn’t have the top knot and it’s not as lumpy as Sumo Citrus is, but it’s certainly quite a coarse piece of fruit that is very unique.
“What’s good is you can have Afourer or Murcott on the shelf and have Gold Nugget on the shelf at the same time, and have a very easy distinction and point of difference. It’s seedless, it has an exceptional flavor – very sweet – and it’s a great eating piece of fruit.”
As there are currently only small volumes, Freshmax will probably only be selling the Gold Nugget variety over a four to five week window.
“It won’t be in every supermarket in every state at this point of time, but in time it’ll have the ability to be in the marketplace for a few months at least.
“And depending on production in the later areas that could give us some category extension for supply. You’ve got a fairly big window for maturity from harvest so you’re not pigeonholed into a small time window…it has good shelf life as well.”
The Gold Nugget is a product of the University of California breeding program, and is genetically seedless unlike the Tango – registered as Tang-Gold in Australia – which was bred to be seedless through the irradiation of budwood.
Freshmax is an Australian licensee for Tang-Gold as well, and Maughan is particularly bullish on the variety’s future.
“For Tang-Gold we have our first little bits of small-scale commercial volume this year, with a dozen or so pallets, but those pallets are going to grow very significantly and quickly,” he said.
“There will be 400 hectares of Tang-Gold in Australia, tree caps have pretty much been filled and tree plantings are going on pretty seriously now.
“Over the next two to three years we’ll see the vast majority of those hectares all planted. In five years’ time that’ll be a pretty significant player in this market.
Maughan highlights Australia’s geographical advantage for exports of all three of these varieties into Asia, and also how Australia’s diverse range of geographies and micro-climates allows for a long citrus production window.
“Within Australia there are several different growing regions which gives us the opportunity to have a pretty long window of supply – Queensland in the northern area which has been a traditional mandarin growing area is earlier.
“We anticipate that Tang-Gold grown in northern Australia will be in the market sometime in May and we’ll go to the southern parts of Australia that are traditionally Navel-growing areas, and we think it’s possible to have fruit harvested right through to October.
“We think there are opportunities with Tang-Gold from the domestic market perspective where we can range product for five months, and there will be a market for certain export markets,” he says, emphasizing Freshmax is still assessing where they will be, but there will be significant supply for U.S. and Canadian importers.
Looking at the overall situation, Maughan says seedless Tang-Gold will most likely be the main easy peeler cultivar, while Sumo Citrus and Gold Nuggets will occupy a different space in the market as IP varieties.
“Gold Nugget will be slightly more of a niche variety – it’s got that coarser texture to it. Sumo Citrus kind of sits in a different category; it’s larger, and it has exceptional eating quality.
“Tang-Gold will become what we believe will be the mainstream mid-to-late season easy peeler variety in Australia with very strong demand for counterseasonal supply into the Northern Hemisphere – the USA, Japan, Korea, China, Southeast Asia, the EU as well.”