Lance: We’ve scaled down our production to suit the scale of the market that we’re doing. So straight away it cuts your costs, production costs. I can sell fruit, like, most of my fruit, with the bananas in particular, and with the avocados, wouldn’t even make second-grade in the eyes of the Central Market, and yet my customers just go crazy over them. You know, that speaks volumes for the structure of our marketing system that’s driven by appearance.
We’ve been through times where it’s more profitable, but usually the times when it has been most profitable it has basically been at somebody else’s expense, which is to do with cyclones. That’s how our industry has worked. That’s why I wanted to get out, because I don’t like profiting off other people’s misery. Yes, that was one of the main reasons that I wanted to get out, because I just don’t believe in that.
You always speak to people and they’re wishing a cyclone on North Queensland down here, and I just can’t hack that. I don’t believe in that. You just can’t do that, and that seems like a crazy way to run an industry.
Geraldine: A poor business model.
Lance: Yes, to think that, like, I can cite numerous examples – I won’t mention names, but it’s people that have basically profited massively out of those cyclones that have hit up there and the last two big ones that they’ve had, they’ve basically built quite a sizeable fortune out of it, and the rest of the time they were basically producing below the cost of production, which I can’t get my head around anymore.
Unless you go and develop your own market so that you can achieve a, like, you can set your own price. You’ve sort of taken the power back into your hands, to set the price, and then the consumers can decide if they want to come and buy your fruit. They can tell you straight out if they think they’re too expensive.
If people say that they’re too expensive, I just say, “Well, I’ve got spare cane knives at home. You come and do a week on the farm and then you tell me what you think, and I can nearly guarantee that you’ll come away convinced that they should be double the price.”
Geraldine: And I think that particularly in horticulture, which is traditionally quite labour-intensive, especially for small-scale production, that’s one of the, I think, a burning issue in terms of consumers not really appreciating the cost of food production, and that we’ve actually reached a point where the consumer has the expectation that their food will be cheap, and when if you actually were to look at the percentage of your spending, there’d be a recognition that food is quite a small component in terms of its relative value.
But just in terms of comparable industries, and you mentioned the dairying, another comparable industry for our situation is oranges. Oranges are a little bit different because they go into juicing and they’re actually quite a big commodity player in the global scheme of things, but here in Australia we’ve had issues around over-production and trees being bull-dozed out.
We’ve got predominantly imports from America in the navel orange, but the over-production of Valencias is now being addressed, where the smaller fruit that’s not going on the market on the domestic market, they’re looking at developing distribution into the Philippines. What they’ve recognised is that to establish a potential off-shore distribution, it means that we can perhaps alleviate some of the over-supply on the domestic market, maintain a standard or a price to growers in that respect, but also just developing some export as well.
We’ve got a really difficult situation with the high Australian dollar, that it’s very hard for us to develop export markets, but it’s not to say that we should just take it off the board. I think that that’s something that particularly the banana industry in general could look at, and something that maybe some of the smaller players might look at more specifically in terms of developing a particularly well-branded and very premium end product, that there is a potential for that as well.
We just recently had a visit from a researcher from the South Johnstone Research Station, and he’s looking at alternative varieties, and he is particularly interested in the sub-tropics, and I know that there are other researchers that are looking at other varieties to find their viability. We’ve got some pretty heavy disease problems with Bunchy Top and Panama.
The difficulty is finding a variety that transports and relays well as a commercial, viable product. You’ve got bananas that taste great, look fantastic but, you know, they’re over-ripe in a day so they’re not a commercially viable crop. I know a lot of people actually come in from overseas or come back from a holiday in Thailand or wherever, and they go, ‘Oh, we had all these fantastic bananas here and there,’ and for our production needs here in Australia, they don’t quite hit the mark in terms of being able to meet those consumer requirements, like shelf life and transportability and things like that.
I think in the local production that you get on the small scale farms we do have a bit of diversity in our cultivars, you know, you can get the Little Senoritas and the Ducasse, and the Plantains, and then you might get people doing Red Daccas and some of the – I know Kevin Gilbert’s got, you know, every variety that we’ve ever grown but, you know, only has very small amounts of them, more as a novelty than anything.
Lance: Yes, you’re not controlled by that so much if you’re just supplying locally.
Geraldine: Yes, exactly.
Lance: If you’ve got the business set up so that you can hold them, like I’ve got a cold room, a ripening room, because you’ve got the quick turnover of fruit—
Geraldine: Yes, so we’ve ended up going back to that idea of having a bit more control over what you can do and what choices you make, and, yeah.