Stone fruit has a short production period and a shelf life of only three or four weeks, which is a factor limiting exports. In comparison, kiwifruit and pipfruit can be stored for months under modified conditions.
The export season starts just before Christmas, with cherry exports largely finished by early February, and apricots by the end of February. There is a plan to breed new apricot varieties to extend the export season into mid-March.
Significant exports of stone fruit began only in the 1970s. In 1971 exports totalled only $58,000, but had increased to $2 million by 1982. The main markets were Australia, the US, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea and West Germany.
In 2007 Australia was the largest market for New Zealand apricots, although good markets were also developing in the US and Europe. Taiwan was once the main market for cherries, but exports were down from 77% of the total in 2003/4 to 49% in 2006/7. Cherry exports to Korea have steadily increased since that market opened in 1998 – in 2008 it took 22% of export volume.
Thailand is also a high-value market. Cherry exports increased from 5.5% in 2003/4 to 11% in 2006/7, making it New Zealand’s third largest market. This increase was no doubt aided by the removal of tariffs from cherries in 2005.
New Zealand was the first country to gain fumigation-free access to Japan, in 2005, and, for the first time, substantial exports of cherries were shipped the following year. Twenty-two tonnes were shipped and good prices were paid – but it remains an unknown market. If Chile’s negotiation for similar access is successful, New Zealand’s fruit may be less competitive.
Export cherries and apricots
Exports were once dominated by nectarines, but that changed in the early 2000s to cherries and apricots, which comprised about 98% of export tonnage. The 2003/4 year was the first that cherry exports exceeded apricots.
The average export price for apricots across all markets has been relatively stable at around $5 per kilo, while cherries fluctuate from $10–12 per kilo. The combined export value of cherries and apricots in 1990 was $1.8 million – by 2006/7 it was $17–18 million, and is expected to grow.
Most cherries and apricots for export come from Central Otago. Some pre-Christmas cherries are still exported from Marlborough, although this was probably less than 25 tonnes in 2006/7.
Internationally, about 150 tonnes of fresh apricots are exported annually, mainly from the northern hemisphere. New Zealand exports just under 1% of this volume, and approximately 2% by value. Australia, Chile and South Africa produce exports at the same time of year as New Zealand, although New Zealand is the only country to supply apricots in February and March.
Ripe for eating
After being picked, the sugar content in peaches, apricots and nectarines does not increase. This means that they do not actually continue to ripen, though they appear to do so because, as the cell walls soften and the acid content decreases, they become softer and sweeter. Warm conditions speed up this process.
Export nectarines, peaches and plums
Nectarine exports dropped from 1,800 tonnes, valued at $5–6 million, in the early 1990s, to less than 34 tonnes, worth only $153,716, by 2006/7. Quantities of peaches and plums exported were negligible.
Stone fruit imports have steadily increased since the US gained access to the New Zealand market in 1996. At first, only California was allowed to bring in all five varieties. New Zealand has proved a profitable market – annual imports from California rose from $2.2 million in 1996 to $9.5 million in 2007. More Pacific north-west states were given permission to bring cherries into New Zealand in 2005, and have lodged applications to import other types of stone fruit.
Limited volumes of plums are imported from Chile in March, however no other country has access to New Zealand.
If a 2008 Australian application to bring in all five stone fruits to New Zealand is successful, their fruit would enter the market at the same time as time as New Zealand-grown fruit, providing direct competition.