Growing Innovation: Issue 11, July 13, 2016

Unleashing market potential in the prune industry

Bruce Gowrie-Smith, Goman Foods, NSW

 

With 50-something years in agriculture under his belt, Bruce Gowrie-Smith has a long and varied history in the industry. As well as growing everything from rice to tomatoes, he’s pioneered large-scale irrigation development in the Riverina area of New South Wales, was instrumental in the early days of corn and sorghum export, and in 2014 was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to agriculture and rural development.

A plum grower at Darlington Point for the last 15 years, most recently Bruce has been breaking ground in the dried prune industry. He’s established a bulk shipping program to the United States that’s significantly boosting demand and prices across the board – and it’s an endeavour he hopes will help solidify the industry’s future in Australia.

“For many years the prune industry has had low prices, primarily because we have two domestic packers needing to meet the price demands of the major supermarkets,” Bruce said. “They’ve also never had the ability to trial an export operation while meeting local demands, simply because there isn’t much volume in Australia – we only produce somewhere between 3000 and 6000 tonnes of prunes, depending on the season.”

But in 2013 a fortuitous set of circumstances led to a third buyer being added to the industry. A buyer whose involvement, according to Bruce, has since seen a 30 per cent uplift in prices.

In town that year for a prune conference was the world’s biggest packer of prunes, US company Sunsweet, which became enamoured with the quality and cost prospects of Riverina prunes. Bruce happened to be a Riverina prune producer without a current contract to domestic packers. “So Sunsweet asked me if I would start experimenting with how prunes could be efficiently transported to their packing facility,” Bruce said. “They acknowledged that nobody anywhere in the world tried to bulk prunes, but were prepared for me to have a go.”

First Bruce’s company, Goman Foods, trialled shipping the prunes in containers using pallets and cardboard cartons. But the cost of the packing materials, and the space they took up, proved a logistical challenge. Ultimately Bruce drew on his knowledge from transporting all kinds of other produce and decided to try shipping loose prunes in 20-foot containers set up with food-grade polywoven liners. “There was some nervousness about whether shipping like this across the equator would compact the product, but it arrived in perfect condition,” Bruce said. “This is now by far the most economical method of shipping prunes.”

Bruce has also extensively devised an efficient method of jettisoning the prunes into the containers using a high-speed belt thrower, among other innovations.

Today Goman Foods has sent almost 100 containers to Sunsweet, exporting Bruce’s own prunes grown on his 55 acres as well as those from a few other uncontracted growers.

“Sunsweet are very happy with getting a small quantity of quality Australian product,” Bruce said. “And with the competition of another buyer in the industry taking prices up, we’ve gone from being essentially a non-profit industry where no new plantings were being done for years, to a point where people are putting in additional acreages or replacing old acreages with a fair degree of optimism. The domestic packers have also raised their prices, so the whole industry has strengthened.”

Bruce sees one of the biggest challenges now is for the prune industry to scale up in size for its long-term health. “If we can get more acres of prunes in the area we could make Australia self-sufficient as well as have some for export,” he said. “We also need to get large-scale, efficient drying operations, which is where research has been coming in in terms of analysing the various techniques of prune drying.”

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