Torrens Valley Orchards – The Consensus Pick
Of all the fields to choose for one’s business, anything involving fruit-growing and exporting is sure to be a challenge. With constraints on time and merchandise, it becomes more important than ever to do the best job possible. Torrens Valley Orchards tries ceaselessly to live up to that manifesto.
Owner Tony Hannaford bought the property in 1985 under his own name. The latest in six generations of fruit-growing workers, he hoped he would be up to the task. Things started out less than smoothly.
“At first we grew apples,” explains Mr Hannaford,” because my family originally worked in that industry. That didn’t work out all that well – we were not in the best area and many new apple varieties would soon be available. We had a few cherries planted in about 1990, and cherries were more successful. Nowadays, they’re basically the only crop we grow.”
Today, Mr. Hannaford owns 6 properties, and 500 acres of cherry-planting land. The company has about seasonal 500 employees, and employs the latest available technology, especially in the packing process; they’ve undoubtedly come a long way.
The only drawback is their paper-thin window of opportunity to harvest and market the goods they specialize in. With less time to do so than most industries afford, the philosophy of “time is money” must be adopted to some degree.
“We do use some organic methods,” said Mr Hannaford, “but principally we’re seeking high-level, high quality production, so it’s not really fair to say we’re green or anything similar.”
Regardless of production speed, Torrens Valley does take cautionary measures in ensuring they give their customers the premium product. These measures include but are not limited to staff training and constant attention to detail.
“Even now,” states Mr Hannaford, “there’s half a dozen people constantly working in the orchard on drainage, nutrition and tree training. No one realizes the amount of work required to grow a large, strong product that eats well and has shelf life.”
With immense customer expectations and ever-present demands to meet in Australia’s fledgling cherry-picking industry, there is significant pressure to produce.
“There’s also competition from a wide range of different products in the market,” says Mr Hannaford. “For the cherries to maintain a price, they have to look good, eat well, and handle well.”
“There are many issues to get the product into the box.” he continues, “birds, rain, heat, water and staff are but a few. Most orchardists would be putting out nets or shooting gas gun when dealing with birds for example, we just try to keep increasing production so we can guarantee product to our customers at the end of the season.”
Continually meeting and satisfying those guarantees, as well as consulting with others who have done so, is the simplest and best way to solidify the resultant reliable reputation.
“We need to work together as an industry,” proclaims Mr. Hannaford. “It’s hard for an individual to be able to travel and make contact with international buyers or growers – you have to work together for these sorts of things. From there, you can find ways to advance your business, like bringing in a group of likeminded buyers, so that’s useful.”
“On the supply base,” said Mr Hannaford, “we have a six-week season, an extremely chaotic time where everything needs to be done now. Sometimes you’ll have clients changing orders at the last minute, for example. When you’re dealing with that, you need staff ready to jump at a moment’s notice and change their plans to satisfy your buyer’s needs.”
Although the suppliers may end up satisfied, others may not be so lucky.
“We’re having some issues right now,” says Mr. Hannaford, “our industry pays piece rates where we can. Our workers are very happy to work in family units with the piece rate system, but it’s debatable whether or not they’re receiving sufficient wages.” These people are all new migrants and working in this type of work is the only opportunity to work that they can find. Their productivity is often very low.
The company is also dealing with shifting from domestic to international demand, gradually delving further into exporting.
“There’s huge demand out there,” “but we’re limited in access to some markets, such as China, Taiwan or Thailand. Even though we may have “free trade agreements” we are still denied access because of perceived pest or disease issues. We’re also facing massive challenges from Chile, where they can grow the product much cheaper. Australia’s only option is to supply quickly with a fresher, more edible product using airfreight.”
They will also be hoping to bounce back from a frighteningly counter-productive aberration in their yearly haul, usually good for “1200-1500 tonnes” of cherries.
“Last year,” reveals Mr Hannaford, “the cherry industry in Southern Australia had an extremely bad season. Whether it was wind chill, cold weather or a combination of factors, we had the worst crop in a hundred years.”
“Hopefully in 2014,” he concludes” we’ll get back on track, and production will be increasing strongly again.”