The development of the Australian table grape industry gives International Fruit Genetics (IFG) plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
Andy Higgins, chief executive of IFG, says this an outlook shared by its licensees as both parties commit to more investment.
Plantings of IFG’s proprietary varieties continue to accelerate as growers replace older varieties, such as Thompson Seedless, with both sweet naturals and specialty, flavoured varieties.
“Our total for Australia is almost 1,214ha and we’re on target for 2021 to increase that to about 1,740ha by the end of the year,” Higgins says. “The majority of that planting continues to be focused on the sweet neutrals with Sweet Globe and Sugar Crisp being the primary drivers for that area of planting.
“We also see an increase in the flavoured varieties such as Cotton Candy, Candy Hearts, and Sweet Celebration as well. We’re also increasing the number of Sweet Sapphire plantings after pausing for a few years to digest the development of market channels.”
These plantings serve a number of purposes, according to Higgins. Primarily they are focused on extending the production window in Australia. Newer varieties and a push into Western Australia and Queensland are set to deliver larger volumes from December all the way through to April “I think that’s both a plus for the domestic market in terms of access to fresh locally grown grapes as well as for Australia in export markets,” says Higgins.
To support this growth, IFG has appointed commercial manager Henry Fisk and technical manager Sebastian Recabarren in the last 12 months. It has also set up a fourth nursery to help meet demand for the newer offerings.
“We’re making investments in staffing and resources so that each of our licensees has an opportunity for the most success,” says Higgins. “Long term we see Australia as quite strong. The interest in the industry is strong; there are growers wanting to make the commitment to pushing the maturity windows, pushing the plantings and making the investments, which is not insignificant.”
Higgins says the confidence in the future of the Australian industry comes from its connection with Asia and the efforts of the industry to establish its position in the market.
“Asia is such a key consumption region, and Australia is in the best position to be servicing that,” explains Higgins.
“The work that the growers, marketers, and government has done to be competitive and build this perception of higher quality, clean standards and supply chain integrity has created quite a strong reputation.”
Beyond its current wave of plantings, IFG has seven new varieties – Sweet Joy, Candy Dreams, Sweet Bond, Kokomo, Bebop, Torch and Julep – that will become available for the first time over the next couple of years. While these are a mix of sweet naturals and flavoured varieties, Higgins says some of the varieties, such as Julep, are quite the departure from the flavours Australian consumers might be used to.
“Julep is an intensely flavoured variety. It’s what I call a grape for the adult palate, one that could pair with a strong cheese. It’s very strong, and if you’re not expecting it, it can be surprising,” says Higgins.
“We’re excited about it, but it will also require a little bit of storytelling, marketing and development to make sure that it comes across to the consumer in the right way.”
Although Australia is still behind the rest of the world when it comes to plantings of IFG’s flavoured varieties – they account for 10 per cent of total IFG plantings in Australia but 20 per cent globally – Higgins believes the notion of what a commodity grape could be and should be is undoubtedly changing.
“The whole category is being lifted by the sweet naturals. They’re much better, and I think consumers in many cases are willing to try new things,” explains Higgins.
“The consumer is changing, and we’re seeing it come through in our requests for flavours that there is high demand,” he adds.
“Some of this is a demographic change, and some are consumers that don’t have a preconceived notion of what a table grape should be and are willing to try something different. In other cases, it’s younger consumers coming in and playing a role.
“You can’t change it overnight, but if you put a little bit on display and consumers try it and want to come back for more, it’s just building a market one brick at a time.”