There has been an unexpected benefit to sweltering through WA’s record-breaking summer. Joseph Ling, managing director of leading WA citrus producer AGRIFresh, says the hot days have helped produce a flavourful fruit that will be flowing onto shelves in Australia and overseas as the 2022 citrus season ramps up.
“The summer heat has helped the internal maturity of the fruit, so consumers can expect some excellent eating flavour,” explains Joseph. “The growing condition this year have been great, leading to cleaner and juicer fruit in abundance.”
It is welcome news for an industry not immune to the disruptive influence of the pandemic. While there were many downsides – AGRIFresh are award-winning exporters that suddenly found borders closed to key consumers of their perishable product – there were also new opportunities and time to prepare for when normality returns.
Joseph says, “Despite the additional work caused by COVID, there was a silver lining as we saw increased demand in the domestic market, with retailers supporting local citrus growers.
“As a business, we strategized our export approach, ensuring that we are well positioned to grow export markets as we come out of COVID-19. Despite the uncertainty, we still saw an increase in export in certain markets.
“There hasn’t been the opportunity to visit the market, to view the fruit and to get a sense for the flow of product, so trust in relationships has been important.”
AGRIFresh employs a core base of locals year-round, but during peak season they require up to 100 additional people in the team, with jobs ranging from picking and packing, equipment maintenance and irrigation. This year, 64 workers from Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoan Island, have joined the crew. With AGRIFresh employing a community-centric approach, the seasonal workers feel welcome and valued.
“All our seasonal workers stay in our onsite accommodation, and make the accommodation a home away from home. As part of our onboarding, we hold welcome BBQ nights and each weekend, we have Sunday church service onsite. We have competitions, such as table tennis, pool, touch rugby and beach volleyball. The team integrates well as they work and play together,” said Joseph.
Basilio Ravuyawa, from Fiji, is AGRIFresh’s Harvest Supervisor and resident Pastor. Basilio says, “The Seasonal Workers Program has helped us Pacific islanders in providing for our family’s everyday needs – that we couldn’t afford to do back at home. The cost of living is high and the wages are really low compared to what we get here – it is a blessing.
“Also, we can support our children’s education to the level that they want to reach. The other good thing about this program is we are achieving our long-term goals in a short period of time – like building a house, starting a business – to help the needy in different communities in our islands. We want to thank AGRIFresh for this great opportunity.”
We are blessed with many successful citrus producers in WA, and particularly in the Northern Valleys, so what is it that sets AGRIFresh apart?
“Mmm, an interesting question!” says Joseph. “There is an ancient proverb that says, ‘Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.’ When we set out to start AGRIFresh 17 years ago – with the vision to grow, pack and market Western Australia’s citrus to the world – we essentially committed to a journey of learning.
“We had to learn how to grow the best fruits we can on sandy plain, with the natural resources available in the region; learn how to pack to international standard to compete globally, and learn to develop export markets that had never taken any citrus from WA in the past.
“Because we had a team that believed in the vision and had the courage to pursue it, so the business invested heavily into technology and continuously improving on our processes. Today, our DNA has not changed. We are still growing as a business, so we are still learning each day.”
AGRIFresh is committed to sustainable farming practices on their 300ha irrigated project. Their natural resource management plan has seen them develop healthier soil, grow 30 kilometres of windbreak trees to reduce erosion and has a dedicated 300ha for carbon credit and installed 800kW of solar farm on their properties.
Joseph says, “We are entrusted to care for the land we crop on. So, we must take every opportunity to minimises damage to the environment and offers a safe working environment supporting and enhancing rural life and human health.”
“We want to produce healthy fruits without compromising the future generation’s ability to do the same.”