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Why a $43 million shed in Melbourne is worth a mint to NQ fruit growers

Statewide

Fruit quality can sometimes be hit and miss for shoppers, but a new Coles supermarket development in Melbourne has north Queensland farmers hopeful that such disappointments in the grocery aisle are about to change.

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Farming ingenuity and cutting-edge post-harvest technology are combining at opposite ends of the country, aiming to deliver higher quality fruit and reduce waste in a win for consumers and the environment.

While supermarket giant Coles celebrates the unveiling of its new fruit ripening centre in Melbourne’s west, prominent north Queensland farmer Dennis Howe is cheering at the prospect of increased consumption to support the expansion of his avocado crop.

The second-generation farmer, who also supplies bananas to the retailer through grower collective Mackays Marketing, says the new centre offers the opportunity to streamline the ripening process – key to taking advantage of rising avocado demand that has increased significantly in recent years.

“Avocados are typically more delicate than bananas, so getting the ripening process right is a big opportunity,” he said.

“In future years there are more avocado plantings that will come into full production. The avocado industry needs to grow consumption and we see this facility as part of that journey.”

Mango growers in north Queensland are also poised to benefit from the new facility, which was built at a cost of $43 million with capacity to ripen 350 million pieces of fruit every year.

It was constructed as part of a five-year agreement between Coles and Mackays Marketing, a Queensland farmer collective owned by Dennis Howe’s Howe Farming Group and Mackays Farming Group.

Collectively the many farming families that supply Mackays Marketing support the employment of more than 2000 people across farms that span from Lakeland though the wet tropics and down to Bundaberg.

Coles will use the facility to ripen fruit from farmers across Australia, including north Queensland growing regions, such as Tully, Lakeland, Innisfail and Mareeba, before being sold in more than 270 supermarkets across Victoria and South Australia.

 

The scale of Coles’ new ripening facility built in partnership with Queensland farmer collective Mackays Marketing.

The opening comes as Australian authorities continue to reassure nervous shoppers the nation’s food supply chains are safe, particularly in Victoria where a COVID-19 surge is threatening to suspend operations of some food processing facilities such as abattoirs.

A spokesman for Coles said Victoria’s pandemic spike would have little impact on the facility’s operations, with staff hiring and training well under way before the state’s second wave of lockdowns.

“And as per government regulations, workers are required to wear PPE and regularly sanitise their hands while on site,” the spokesman said.

Mackays Marketing CEO Richard Clayton said the partnership with Coles would be instrumental in encouraging greater consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables to create a healthier nation.

“This project has brought best practice ripening technology to Coles and this will help us continue to regularly provide the very best quality bananas, avocados and mangoes to consumers,” he said.

“Our farming families are proud of the produce they grow and excited to see a reduction of waste produce as we extend the shelf life of the fruit.”

Using new reversible air flow ripening technology, the 7280 square metre facility is 70 per cent more energy efficient than traditional ‘tarped’ ripening systems, producing fruit that has been ripened as it is needed, improving shelf life for customers and reducing waste.

Food supply’s delicate balance

With farms dotted across the rural landscape and the bulk of Australia’s consumers located in cities, food typically travels thousands of kilometres every day, sometimes along highly complex supply chains before reaching its destination.

Managing that journey and its inherent risks to food quality, is a delicate and, at times, clumsy science.

In the case of bananas, avocados and mangoes that move through the Mackays Marketing system to Coles, once harvested they are packed and then transported on temperature-controlled trucks all the way down to Victoria – usually in a single trip and involving minimal handling until arrival at the ripening centre.

Until the new centre was built, Coles used what’s called in the business a “tarped” ripening system.

As the name suggests, fruit will sit under a tarpaulin with a forced-air fan system at one end of the room blowing temperature and humidity-controlled air through the pallets of fruit to ripen it.

It’s a hit-and-miss method of ripening fruit, where sometimes uneven amounts of air flow through different layers or pallets, which means ripening is uneven within and between the storage containers.

Air will always take the path of least resistance and flow through gaps around containers and pallets rather than through the containers. This can lead to a single pallet of bananas having different levels of ripeness which makes it harder for the retailer to predict shelf life.

The end result for the consumer is fruit unripe in the store (such as rock-hard avocados and green bananas) or the other extreme – too ripe on the shelf, also equally unappealing for shoppers, leaving fruit unsold and discarded.

It’s costly for the food supply chain and the environment. A report published in May for the federal Department of Agriculture, Environment and Water and Refrigerants Australia, estimated $3.8 billion in farm gate value was lost in the Australian food supply chain each year.

The transportation of fruit and vegetables comprises the vast majority of this waste – mostly attributed to variations in temperature during the food journey either by truck, rail or air, and while in storage.

Tarps removed

At the new facility in Melbourne, Coles has implemented a “tarpless” system using reversible fan technology.

This forces air through the side of each pallet using air curtains. It means a very similar amount of air is being pushed into each and every carton.

The reversible fan technology also means that the airflow direction can change, so each carton of bananas is evenly ripened from either side.

The system also allows control of the fruit’s temperature within 0.1 of a degree – which is significantly better than what could be achieved before.

For growers like Dennis Howe on the Atherton Tableland, the refinements in post-harvest handling means on-farm operations can also be fine-tuned.

Atherton Tableland avocado and banana grower, Dennis Howe.

“To consolidate produce from various growers, different regions and various growing conditions across Australia to one place is beneficial,” he told InQueensland.

“It allows fruit to be closely assessed and allocated to a structured ripening program, which produces consistently ripened fruit for consumers in Victoria.

“This partnership also encourages more dialogue between buyers and suppliers to manage our pick rates, so we pick at the same time that the consumer is demanding the fruit.”

Coles chief commercial officer Greg Davis said the retailing group was delighted to be supporting horticulture jobs across Queensland and other growing regions by replacing old technology with more sustainable alternatives.

 

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