Mildura Fruit Company (MFC) grower services manager, Justin Lane, left, with Belah Heights farm operations manager, Toby Hederics, are all smiles as the citrus harvest gets under way in earnest. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

THAT distinct chill in the air, frosty lawns and icy windscreens are the classic signs that winter has arrived in Sunraysia. 

It also indicates that the annual citrus harvest is in full-swing across our region.

To see the harvest up close, the ‘Weekly recently visited Belah Heights, at Trentham Cliffs, a property that boasts more than 380 hectares of citrus, including a wide range of mid-to-late-season navels. 

Hosting our visit was Mildura Fruit Company (MFC) grower services manager, Justin Lane, who revealed this year’s picking season had commenced in late April.

“So far it’s going well and the demand for the fruit, particularly due to the coronavirus, has been strong, both locally and from overseas,” he said.

“The early season in the local market was strong and we have started moving a lot of export product now.”

Mr Lane said that the lead up to this year’s harvest hadn’t been without its difficulties for growers.

“It’s been a tough growing year. It was a very dry winter last year, and through the spring with drought conditions prevailing. That impacted early fruit development with some damage inflicted from dust and wind, which caused quite a few marks on the fruit,” he said.

“Despite that, the fruit has matured remarkably well, and is tasting very sweet and juicy – quite excellent really.”

“The harvesting of the mid-season varieties including Leng, Washington and Cara Cara Navels, and Imperial mandarins is at its peak.”

The citrus harvest also coincides with winter frosts and this year has seen quite a few occurring early in the season.

“Around the last full moon we experienced some really cold nights which brought the frosty mornings, but fortunately there hasn’t been any significant frost damage and it helps enhance the colour of the fruit and its taste,” Mr Lane said.

“Frost is one hazard, but sunburn is another, and to minimise that the foliage on some citrus trees is sprayed with what is effectively a sun screen solution to protect them.

“The Cara Cara variety is a little bit more sensitive to sunburn and so some growers spray a white clay solution called ‘Surround’, on the leaves which forms a white barrier coating, helping to protect them from sunburn and heat stress.”

The Cara Cara Navel orange, or red-fleshed Navel orange, is a mid-season orange believed to have developed as a spontaneous bud mutation on a Washington Navel orange tree.

“The Cara Cara is characterised by its distinctive red flesh and is a very good eating piece of fruit. It is proving to be very popular right throughout Asia and the Untied States, and it’s starting to be a sought after orange domestically too,” Mr Lane added.

MFC’s packing plant is currently running at close to capacity level, while observing the social distancing and safety requirements imposed during the COVID-19 situation.

“Last year at this time we were running three shifts, six-days-a-week,”Mr Lane said. 

“This year due to COVID-19, we have gone to two shifts – seven-days-a-week, with the extra cleaning and sanitation and temperature checks we have to do, but we are basically operating at full capacity.”

Harvest labour shortages have been a concern for our region, and while some backpackers and seasonal workers haven’t been able to come to Australia, Mr Lane said many have remained here and are able to work to fill the positions both on the packing plant floor and in the field.

“We try to employ as many locals as we can, but we do rely to a large degree on overseas workers,” he said. 

“The ones that we have onboard this year are mostly those who haven’t been able to return to their country of origin due to the coronavirus, and so they are quite appreciative of the work we have for them.”

With a massive amount of fruit to be harvested on the Trentham Cliffs property, the responsibility to make that all happen in a timely manner falls to Belah Heights farm operations manager, Toby Hederics.

The young, ‘new breed’ of farmer is enthusiastically managing this year’s citrus harvest which he said has been progressing smoothly.

“In addition to our main plantings, we have quite a lot of young trees in the ground which aren’t quite bearing fruit yet, but our main varieties are mid-to-late-season navels and we also have a range of ‘easy-peel’ mandarins including Afourers and Tangold,” Mr Hederics said.

There is no doubt that the export market is the icing on-the-cake for the citrus industry, together with ever-increasing domestic demand.

“We have definitely built our varieties around the export market, and as an industry we are very export dependant but the domestic market has also been great in the past few years,” Mr Hederics said. 

“However, export is predominantly what we grow for, and our varieties mirror that – the easy-peel, seedless variety being an example.”

Mr Hederics also touched on the subject of labour availability this season, which he said was better than expected.

“Actually this year we have found labour quite accessible. Whether that is due to a lot of Europeans remaining in Australia or not I do not know, but it has nonetheless been good this season,” he said.

“Our concern is more with future seasons. With our ever-expanding business, labour is going to become an issue because we have a lot of Mandarins coming into production which will need serious manpower – a serious picking force to harvest them.

“So in the next few years we’ll really see how accessible labour is, but right now finding the almost 40 pickers we have for the harvest hasn’t been a problem, and that’s been the experience across the industry.”