The MIA missing in action on lucrative fresh food exports

Imagine a wealthy Beijing businessman paying $5 to sink his teeth into single a piece of fruit, because he knows it was plucked in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) just 24 hours beforehand.

Sound far-fetched? Already Chinese consumers are forking out $9 a litre for fresh Aussie milk flown from Victoria, and Darling Downs-grown food delivered express to Asian markets via a private airport is fetching several times the market price.

Griffith Business Chamber is furious that the MIA may be “Missing In Action” in taking advantage of what may be the most lucrative export market in Australian agricultural history.

Dr Alvin Lee, director of the master of marketing program at Deakin University, has studied the growth of high quality fresh food exports into Asian markets. He’s convinced that flying express produce to the millions of super fussy salad-starved middle-class Chinese and Indians is the new frontier for the sector. 

“Anyone who’s traveled through China and India know how difficult it and expensive it is to find fresh fruit and veg. Australian farm produce is considered the highest quality, and there are consumers who will pay an incredible price for it.  There is enormous potential for the MIA,” he said.

Dr Lee said same rich Asian businessmen buying up our real estate also crave quality Australian farm produce. The big spenders paying above the odds for our housing and would also do so for our fruit, vegetables, daily and meat – if they could get it faster.

“To get premium price, the key is getting it to the consumer as fast as possible. If you can get strawberries to the retailer overnight, rather than in two days, it can increase the value by 100 per cent. To anybody selling something perishable, that’s gold,” he said.

One man to recognise the potential of this market is Queensland developer John Wagner. In 2013, he achieved what governments have been too terrified to do for almost half a century – he built a major airport.

The privately-run Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport, in Toowoomba, has weekly flight services of chilled meat and fresh fruit and vegetables into Hong Kong.

Already at least one Riverina council – Deniliquin – has reached out to Mr Wagner, seeking his support to upgrade their small airport to enable dedicated freight services to Asia via Toowoomba. Griffith Business Chamber wants their local council to be more pro-active.

“We urge our Mayor John Dal Broi to join chamber executives on an urgent delegation to Toowoomba to explore partnership opportunities with John Wagner,” Paul Pierotti, chamber president, said. 

Griffith could well have an advantage over other councils, with an airport already in their region and close access to Canberra Airport, which now runs dedicated international freight services.

Vito Mancini, president of Griffith District Citrus Growers Association, is also acutely aware of the potential of this market and the factors holding it back.

“This has booming prospects. I know I’m going to cop flak for saying this, but the fact is Australian consumers don’t appreciate high quality fruit in the same way Asians do,” he said. 

Australians are spending a lower proportion of household expenditure on food than ever, demanding cheaper and cheaper fruit and veg. But there are others willing to pay a price more deserving of world-class produce. 

“Here, when we go to a dinner party, we bring chocolates or a bottle of wine. In China, it’s common to bring a fresh fruit hamper. That’s how much they value it,” Mr Mancini said. 

Mr Mancini believes regulation needs to be modernised if we are to cash in on this market. Many fruits grown the Riverina at risk of fruit fly are subject to a 14-day treatment program throughout the year, thus preventing it reaching the markets paying top dollar. 

But he says there is a window during winter, when fruit flies are inactive, when the regulation could be relaxed. The data is there, but bureaucrats are unwilling to incorporate it into regulatory frameworks.

And then there’s the need to promote what the Riverina has to offer.

Mr Mancini said he was shocked that learn, when part of a delegation promoting Australian exports in China, the local businessman didn’t even know fruit was grown in his part of Australia. 

“There is a role for councils, for governments, for universities, for business groups to get the awareness out there. To send delegations to China and India. To promote the quality and sustainability of the produce here,” Dr Lee said. 

The question remains whether the MIA will join these efforts, or let the hungry  Asian consumers get their  feed elsewhere.