Dark eddies for blackcurrants
Blackcurrant growers face another season of disappointing returns for much of their fruit.
While those supplying international conglomerate GlaxoSmithKline for its Ribena drink are paid well, prices for the rest of the crop are likely to be substantially lower this year on the back of a just-completed harvest that promised more than it delivered.
It follows a couple of years where adverse weather has reduced the harvest.
Mike Kearney, general manager of the NZ Blackcurrant Co-operative, which markets fruit from more than 40 growers based mainly in Canterbury and Nelson, said high exchange rates and soft demand, particularly in Europe, had dragged prices down.
"The exchange rate has gone up considerably in some markets, more importantly for us in Japan."
Recession in Europe, a major producer of blackcurrants, had affected demand and prices which had flowed through to other markets, he said.
"The price outlook is probably down a quarter on last year.
"Europe sneezes and we catch a cold."
As a result, growers here were likely to get between 85c and a $1 a kilogram, compared with the $1.10 they received last year, Mr Kearney said.
"We will do our best but I can't see us matching last year's returns."
For most growers, it would cover their costs and "a bit more", but was not sustainable long term, he said.
Adding to the disappointment was that the harvest hadn't been as good as expected, Mr Kearney said.
Preliminary estimates put it at about 8500 tonnes nationally, an improvement on the lowly 7700 tonnes harvested last year when wet weather severely reduced Nelson crops.
Though the weather was better this season, it still affected yields, he said. Nelson's share recovered to about 2000 tonnes.
"It looked promising early on but drought in Nelson before and during harvest restricted yields and frost damage was evident all through the country.
"There was a lot of fruit drop between flowering and harvest."
A couple of severe windstorms in parts of Canterbury knocked 10 to 15 per cent off some crops, he said. "It wasn't disastrous, but it took the gloss off."
The co-operative had enough fruit to supply markets and to do some market development "but we were hoping for a better season all round both from production and marketing, particularly after last year".
There were mixed fortunes for Nelson growers. Mike Eggers, whose family grows 33 hectares at Upper Moutere, said it had been another difficult season and they - along with other growers - would struggle to make money from their crop.
Without GlaxoSmithKline, which takes up to half of the national crop, there would be no industry, he said.
"They are the cornerstone and have been generous in their dealings with growers and they pay promptly."
Though exchange rates were a big hurdle, the major problem was working out what was causing low yields, which often bordered on the terrible, he said.
"It is proving to be a much more difficult crop to sustain the yields we need given the costs and the risks involved.
"The national objective is to get to a 10-tonne-per-hectare average, but I believe this year was only 4.5 tonnes, so there is a long way to go."
Mr Eggers said younger crops did better than older ones and soil type, sufficient winter chilling and irrigation was all important, but they didn't fully explain why yields continued to remain on the low side.
"For this crop just gone we had the perfect buildup - a late, wet summer then a cold winter which should have given us a better crop than we had."
He suspected it had something to do with plant nutrition.
Mr Eggers said fruit prices were likely to remain low for a while because of the lack of new international buyers and a risk adverse attitude to new product development in the wake of the global financial crisis.
It was, however, an excellent season for Blackcurrant NZ director Philip Leith, who grows 40ha at Upper Moutere.
"Yields were definitely up for us. They averaged 8 to 10 tonnes per hectare. We had some exceptionally good ones on our younger blocks and even an 18-year block performed better than it has for some time."
He had countered the drier conditions and the threat of frost damage by irrigating earlier to keep his plants in good health and lost very little fruit as a result.
"It confirmed to us that younger blocks and regular irrigation are absolutely essential.
"And if we get the weather conditions in our favour we have the potential to get good crops, which is something we had been beginning to doubt in recent years."
He intended to increase his plantings to 50ha over the next couple of years.
Although they were tough to get access to and demanding, Asian markets offered good prospects for growth and paid much better than traditional markets, Mr Leith said.
Australia was the lowest paying market.
"They buy the cheapest concentrate they can and have no loyalty."'
Mr Leith said he still had faith in blackcurrants. "It is a healthy product with a good story, so I'm confident we will survive."