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March, 2009

The Summer Fruits of March

By Dennis Linden

Breakthroughs in transportation technologies for fresh produce make it possible to enjoy summer fruits from around the world every month of the year.
Passion Fruit
Right now, the harvest moon glows a bright orange over New Zealand as growers there begin to bring in the crops that they have tended since the spring (November). Actually, for Melissa’s, the bounty started last month with the first arrivals of blueberries, kiwano melons and passion fruit. This month, feijoas will be added to our product list, soon followed in April by red and gold tamarillos as well as baby kiwi. In late April or early May, ship containers of apples, pears and the country’s signature crop, kiwifruit, will pass through the Melissa’s warehouse on their way to retail produce departments across the country.

New Zealand's fresh fruit industry is small by international standards, but with a domestic market of only 4 million consumers the country’s fruit industry has always depended on its exports to be fiscally viable. Today, New Zealand fruits are shipped to over 60 countries with the European Union, UK, USA and Japan being the primary markets. While the country’s rich soils and mild climate zones produce a large and diversified amount of fresh fruits, its remote location make for very high transportation costs in a competitive global marketplace. In the 1980s, as other regions in the world with cheaper labor and shipping costs increased production, the country’s agricultural industry decided it had to offer something special to justify the higher price tags of its perishable goods. To that end, the entire country’s fresh produce industry went through a “green” makeover, starting with its most famous crop, the kiwifruit.

Kiwi from New Zealand
Due to New Zealand’s remote location in the world, there were few pests to cope with during production when kiwifruit was first grown commercially for export back in the early 1960s. However, as the acreage of production expanded and the number of international markets for the fruit increased, pests became an increasingly significant problem. Consequently, by the 1980s several chemical applications during the fruit’s seven month growing cycle had become the norm. However, that same era also brought an increased awareness of food safety issues worldwide, resulting in residue restrictions for fruit being shipped into Europe. This environment, literally and figuratively, triggered a cohesive action by the kiwi industry as a whole to limit insecticide use in order to comply with these new import requirements and then expanded into a value-added marketing point for the country’s perishable exports.

Converting an entire country’s growing practices as a marketing strategy was a daunting task to even suggest. But that’s exactly what New Zealand did over a period of some fifteen years, one crop at a time. Of course, between the theory and the implementation there was a lot of angst and politics, but in the end growing practices were hammered out -- first in the kiwi industry and, gradually, throughout the rest of the country’s commercial fruit sectors. It should be noted that at the time each major export crop was regulated by its own government commodity board, which controlled price and supply through licensing. This infrastructure made it much easier to establish the new growing practices nationally.

The New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board developed an integrated pest management program (IPM) called KiwiGreen that, when followed, produced a crop with no detectable amounts of chemical residues. In the first year, just 1% of the national crop was produced using this program; six seasons later the entire export crop was grown under the KiwiGreen mandates.

Today, all of the country’s export crops have been consolidated under one program for simplification in the global marketplace, called the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards program. The results of all these efforts have been quite amazing. Depending on the green technologies now developed for each crop variety, insecticide use has been cut by fifty to ninety percent and detectable chemical residues have been completely eliminated.
Gala Apples
Besides being at the forefront of residue-free fruits, we can also thank New Zealand for the large selection of colorful and flavorful apples that are on display in every retail produce department today. New Zealand is the birthplace of the Gala apple, which was first marketed as the “Ugly Apple” by the now defunct NZ Apple and Pear Board in the mid 1970s. This ad campaign was an attempt to break the paradigm of “redder is better” that the Red Delicious had established in the eyes and minds of consumers throughout the world. Today, the Red Delicious is well on its way to becoming a rare heirloom variety as it loses more and more market share each season to an array of multi-colored, high sugar apple varieties.

New Zealand is a day ahead of us on the calendar and months ahead seasonally, yet it’s only a short trip to your local market where the produce aisles are brimming with a tasty selection of summer fruits from the first country to grow green and see beyond red. Melissa’s is in the business of making the world smaller, so enjoy!