By John Dooley

A FILM crew employed by Austrade to produce a video showcasing our grape growers was in Mildura this week shooting the next stage a multi-million dollar international campaign to attract and connect buyers across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to Aussie exporters and the best of Australian agricultural produce and now it’s table grapes and Mildura’s growers time to shine.

The campaign has been under way for six months in markets across ASEAN and is called ‘Shine With Us’.

People can see some of the videos already promoting sectors such as citrus, cherries, dairy, beef and almonds at https://www.austrade.gov.au/agri-buyers.

As Austrade points out, table grapes are an incredibly valuable export worth almost $700 million last financial year − and as growers and exporters look to move past the significant challenges of the pandemic, and some rocky global trading issues, Austrade has been working alongside them with two initiatives to help them out.

The first is the Agribusiness Expansion Initiative, a $72 million program designed to deliver a surge in trade exports in key markets across the world to act as “boots on the ground” for exporters looking to diversify their export footprint.

Despite some significant hurdles in the relationship with China, Australian agricultural produce remains their major market and relations are good and demand is high with good prices being achieved.

Irymple table grape grower Rocky Mammone participated in the video being filmed this week and he said that he was really looking forward to working with Austrade on this important program − the ‘Shine’ campaign.

“It is supporting the growers of produce which is very much sought-after across the world,” he said.

Mr Mammone is currently harvesting his mid-season crop of ‘Sweet Globe’ table grapes which are destined for the Chinese market.

Sweet Globe is a large, seedless green grape which is crisp and often described as being similar to biting into your favourite apple.

The deluxe green grapes are renowned for their signature crunch and sweet juicy flavour, something the Chinese consumer loves.

Mr Mammone said despite some of the issues with Australian exports to China, his table grape markets continue to purchase his product.

However, COVID has been a concern because of the impact it has had on the free flow of freight to China with airlines not flying and shipping being a slower form of delivery.

“COVID affected our freight and caused delays and we also incurred extra costs in our freight,” he said.

“We are looking forward to governments not locking down countries − not just Australia. It is important that there is a freeing up of ports, fruit receivals, customs and those associated things so that we can get the system back to normal for a free-flow of people and trade.

“We need people for labour and we need our customers to be able to visit us and we want to be able to visit them. That is a hugely important thing. That face-to face engagement makes all the difference.

“We are still shipping to China. We have developed really good long-term relationships and friendships with our customers over more than 10 years and they remain solid.

“We also export into other Asian markets including South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and also the Middle East.”

Mr Mammone said that this season’s crops were shaping up to produce a good yield.

“The crops are really good this year,” he said. “Harvesting has been slightly delayed by 10 days to two weeks, largely due to a very cold Spring.

“We are on track now and the harvest is progressing well and that recent heavy rain didn’t impact us at all.”

To address the complications created with freight by COVID, Austrade introduced a program called IFAM − The International Freight Assistance Mechanism, which is a temporary, targeted, emergency support measure put in place by the Australian Government to keep global air links open in response to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To date, $1.2 billion has been spent giving Australian businesses reliant on air freight extra time to adapt to the new international trade environment.

IFAM maintains global air connections and protects hard fought market share, while targeting support where it is needed most and buying Australian businesses time to align their operating models to ‘new-look’ supply chain.

Tim Milner’s Irymple and Sunnycliffs vineyards produce some the best tasting table grapes in the region and he has carved out a lucrative market in China to supply their ‘sweet ‘n tasty’ grapes to the rapidly expanding ‘Hifresh’ group who are based in Beijing.

Mr Milner has invested in state-of-the-art cool rooms which can cool 50 tonnes of freshly harvested fruit down to minus 0.05 degrees in eight hours.

“Grapes don’t actually freeze until they reach -1.5 degrees,” Mr Milner said.

“They have to be at that 0.05 degree temperature for the protocol cold treatment and then we ship them by road to Valley Pack in Shepparton, who are experts in shipping logistics and cold storage.”

The fruit is picked, cooled overnight and packed in Milner’s Irymple warehouse, then it goes the same day on a road-train to Shepparton where it will be cooled further to the correct temperature, ready to put into shipping containers and sent to the Port of Melbourne where it will be put on a cargo ship bound for China.

Mr Milner said that COVID had presented difficulties for his business and the industry in general.

“COVID is our biggest challenge,” he said.

“We are an early producer and so we found ourselves right in the middle of the perfect storm when COVID hit in 2020.

“I remember when it first came over thinking that it was another SARS and we survived SARS – it will last three or four months and we will be through it.

“And then the lockdowns started happening in China and these seriously impacted our buyer in Beijing.”

Mr Milner said that had it not been for the fact that grapes and fruit in general is actually part of the Chinese diet, things would have been worse.

“In China every meal you have finishes with a piece of watermelon and grapes – fresh fruit – and so it has to be on their plate and it has to taste nice,” he said.

“After a while, they started slowly coming back, but the biggest challenge at that point was freight.

“We had containers arriving into Shanghai’s port and the shipping companies decided to throw a US $1000 congestion tax on them, which added another $1500 to our costs per container.

“On top of that, the ships were backed up waiting outside Shanghai, which is one of the biggest ports and movers of containers in the world. When the ship’s slot to unload came they were given one hour to unload their cargo. And they would be given 10 hours notice of when they were to enter the port.

“Our shipping line ANL were very helpful to us and they said ‘just tell your local agents that they must have their trucks sitting at the port ready to receive the containers, because if the trucks aren’t there they won’t unload you containers’.”

Apart from those issues with freight Mr Milner said this season so far has been very good.

“It is delayed. We are probably two weeks behind and currently we are picking our Crimson Seedless grapes from our new property,” he said.

“Overall we have 285 acres across our two properties in the Irymple and Sunnycliffs region.

“In addition to the Crimson, we grow Thompson Seedless grapes for the Japanese market, and Red Globe Seedless which is grown for the Indonesian market − we grow a variety for a market.”