(Aug. 18, 12:00 p.m.) MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Consumers more likely to associate Australia with kangaroos and koala bears than navel oranges and minneolas got an education recently when a group of growers from Down Under traveled to California.

Australian growers plan to export 1,200 containers of citrus — 1.3 million 35-pound boxes of navels, 200,000 22-pound boxes of minneolas, 70,000 22-pound boxes of ellendale tangerines and 50,000 22-pound boxes of daisy tangerines — from early July until late September, said Stu Monaghan, national sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla., exclusive U.S. distributor of Australian citrus, along with The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sporting an enthusiasm prompted by a sterling Australian winter crop, which is opposite of North America’s winter, 13 Australian citrus growers visited 50 major supermarkets in the Sacramento and Southern California areas the week of Aug. 11 touting the benefits of their fruit and handing out samples to consumers.

The impetus for the trip was threefold, said Peter Walker, chairman of Riversun Export Pty. Ltd., Renmark, South Australia:

  • To give growers from three citrus production areas in Southern Australia an opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the U.S. market;

  • To offer U.S. consumers a chance to meet Australian growers and gain a feel for how they grow and operate their orchards; and

  • To educate retail produce managers about Australian citrus.

Riversun consists of 28 shareholders ranging from large packing sheds shipping thousands of pallets to smaller ones handling 10-15 pallets, Walker said.

Australia’s citrus industry was making significant progress through the 1990s, but stalled when South Africa entered market in 2000, Walker said. A current drought has caused the industry to stumble once again.

Navel orange volume will be about 30% less than last year’s crop because of the serious drought that has struck the region, said Mark Hanks, DNE’s vice president of sales and marketing for North America.

“It’s terrible,” said Walker.

In the Riverland region along the Murray River, where he grows, 50 of 650 growers have abandoned their crops, and 100 more could cease production if the drought continues for a fourth year, he said.

But thanks to the area’s cold nights and warm, dry days, the product that is available couldn’t be better.

“The energy is just going into the fruit,” Walker said. “It tastes great and it looks great.”

Growers are reducing the canopies on their trees to save water, and that, Walker said, results in larger fruit.

Australia has only two major retailers, Walker said. They are similar to U.S. stores, but not as large. And U.S. produce departments have a wider selection of fruits and vegetables.

“I think the consumer here is probably a little bit more demanding on quality,” he said.

After enjoying citrus samples and asking about kangaroos hopping about the Outback, shoppers inquired about the Australian citrus program, Walker said.

Many, like Bette Addington, who was shopping for produce in a Manhattan Beach Ralphs store, were surprised to learn about the counterseasonal navel orange program.

“This is great,” she said. “I didn’t know they had them.”

Prices will be higher this season because of added costs of ocean freight, inland transportation and other expenses, Monaghan said. But still, Australian navel oranges were selling for $1.99 per pound the Manhattan Beach Ralphs store in mid-August.

Although Australian growers also export to Japan and Southeast Asia, fruit earmarked for America “is the best of the best,” Walker said.

“Most growers strive to get 40% to 50% to this market,” he said.

Australian growers promote citrus in U.S. tour
Judith Bertalli, a grower from Mildura, Australia, shows a picture of orange cake made with Australian citrus to shopper Aileen Chiang of Torrance, Calif., at a Ralphs supermarket in Manhattan Beach, Calif., during a promotional visit to California the week of Aug. 11. The citrus is exported by Riversun Export Pty Ltd., Renmark, South Australia, and distributed in the U.S. by DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla., and The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.