2018 NSW DPI China study tour

2018 China Study tour: price correction on the horizon and nutrition to improve fruit taste and texture

Steven Falivene, December 2018

Steven Falivene, NSW DPI Citrus Development Officer, came home with three key learning outcomes from a citrus study tour in China earlier this year:

  1. buyers perceived that the high Australian fruit prices are only temporary and as soon as Chile enter the market, a price correction will occur
  2. fruit with better taste (higher °Brix and lower acidity) and softer flesh can deliver premium prices
  3. replacing chemical fertiliser programs with organic-based programs to manipulate citrus nutrition can improve fruit taste.

A lady tasting fruit at wholesale markets in China

Two Chinese market floor traders and two direct sales buyers were interviewed. A consistent comment was the very high price of Australian citrus and that at times, fruit was being purchased for prices above the selling price. The concept of Chinese buyers trading Australian fruit at a financial loss was difficult to comprehend. Apparently many Chinese buyers have a long-term view of trading and see this as an opportunity to establish a reliable supply for future financial gains.

Another popular theme was the anticipation of Chile entering the market and that this is taking the edge off Australian fruit prices. This information should be a warning call to the Australian citrus industry that, while the industry is experiencing good prices at the moment, we need to prepare for a more competitive and modest priced market in the future.

Australia cannot compete with Chile, or other lower cost producers in the southern hemisphere on price. The export prices accepted by these countries is economically unviable for Australia. Australia must obtain premium prices based on a higher quality product and operate orchards at maximum economic efficiency. NSW DPI is exploring opportunities for an industry project to quantify the reasons that fruit is downgraded from first to second grade. Options to improve first-grade pack-outs will be investigated and the proposed practices will be cost-benefit analysed to ensure they are practical and provide economic benefit. The aim is to reach a 70% first-grade pack-out, but we need to establish a cost effective way of achieving this.

A man digging a trench beside a citrus tree

A hand with composted cow manure in the palm

A tractor with a rotary hoe implement

The next opportunity for Australia to maximise export demand and price is to focus on taste. A collaborative project between Hort Innovation and NSW DPI is exploring the use of deficit irrigation in autumn. So far results are promising. Another tool to improve taste is manipulating citrus nutrition. The citrus research insitutue at Chongqing has a six-year citrus nutrition demonstration trial comparing composted fertilisers to mineral fertilisers. An 80 cm long by 30 cm deep narrow ditch is dug (figure 2) on both sides of the tree and 5 kg of composted canola meal is buried. Canola meal has a high nutrient content and can provide all of the required N,P and K for the season.  Fruit from the compost fertiliser treatment had 1.5 higher °Brix and 0.2% less acid. This made the fruit much better tasting to the Chinese palate and consequently, buyers wanted this fruit and were paying a higher fruit price. The researchers also expressed the need to incorporate compost into the soil. This was mostly done manually, however, one grower built a specialised cultivator to incorporate the compost into the soil (figure 4). NSW DPI has submitted a project proposal to a funding agency to explore the use of specially blended urban waste compost to be used in citrus.

Another important factor is flesh texture. Some buyers commented on the hard texture of the citrus segments. This was interpreted as the excessive or hardened fibre around the segments of the fruit. A lot of fibre around the segments of fruit is often referred to as 'rag'. A number of factors can contribute to hard fruit pulp texture including:

  • high applications of nitrogen and potassium fertilisers increase the rag around segments as well as often causing rougher textured rinds
  • granulation causing the hardening of segments on the top of the fruit. This is associated with large, course rind textured fruit that can be the result of low crop load or excessive nitrogen and potassium application. Applying a growth regulator e.g. 2,4-D at flowering and fruit set can also increase granulation
  • dry fruit, which is often caused by differing degrees of frost damage.

In practice, growers can ensure they do not apply too much fertiliser to the crop load and minimise the use of 2,4-D in high risk situations.

For more details on the China study tour, you can contact Steven direct on steven.falivene@dpi.nsw.gov.au or 0427 208 611.