PRECEDE: Growing export is at the core of a $45 million shake-up at Narre Warren North orchard Montague. General manager Rowan Little spoke to CASEY NEILL about the apple and stone fruit business’s history and its crisp, juicy future.
QUOTE: “It will double our apple packing here, and stone fruit. It will drop 10 to 15 per cent off the cost of that distribution.”
She’s apples at Montague, but bigger and better things are on the horizon.
Bill Montague started the business in 1948 and is now in his 90s.
General manager Rowan Little said Bill no longer owned the place but remained its patriarch.
“He still gets involved in talking about apple varieties,” he said.
Bill’s youngest son Ray is the managing director. His children Scott and Tim are involved, plus Bill’s niece and two nephews.
Aside from the Montagues, the Horswood Road orchard and packing facility employs about 200 people year-round, and extras seasonally.
“Our sales in fruit are around $150-odd million a year and really focus on apples, pears and stone fruit,” Rowan said.
“I think about 1960 Bill decided to plant some apples on this site.
“So we’ve been growing apples here since the early 1960s.
“We’ve been growing apples really on this site and other sites around South Eastern Australia.
“At the moment we’ve got five orchards.”
The other four are near Canberra, Swan Hill and Bendigo and in Tasmania.
“Probably of what we grow, around 20 per cent is of what we sell,” Rowan said.
“So 80 per cent of the sales we make are through partner growers.
“This is the main site we use for distribution offshore.
“We send apples to Europe, to Asia.
“We send stone fruit to Asia and the Middle East.
“That’s the part of the business that we’re most enthusiastic about growing.
“We see our opportunity to really grow to the next dimension to be through the export market.
“One of the challenges Australia has as an exporter is that the way we pack fruit has been built around supplying the domestic market.
“If we really want to expand our export sales, what is it that we would need in order to really move volume into that market and to move it at an efficient rate?”
He said the orchard’s practices would remain the same.
“But packing and movement of fruit to the port and then out of Australia is the big area where we have to do a lot of work,” he said.
The Montague facilities as they stand are very adequate for the domestic market, he said, “but they’re not going to give us the efficiencies we need to go into the export market”.
Builders came in and recommended starting from scratch with a customised site.
Montague wouldn’t get the efficiencies it needed by just updating the existing facilities.
“We went out and started working with a planner. We had a bit of a broad idea,” he said.
“This was back in 2016.”
Montague got the opportunity to buy the horse agistment next door. They weighed up other locations.
“At the moment all of our fruit has to get through the city to get out here,” he said.
A touted ring road extension sealed the deal.
Lysterfield Park borders the new land. It’s in a green wedge pocket on the edge of the urban sprawl.
Montague spoke to Parks Victoria about its plans for Lysterfield Park and learnt that the plan was to partner with neighbours to provide facilities.
The idea for a community engagement centre was born.
“The plan is for a cafe, bike rental, and to also develop a pick-your-own orchard,” he said.
“We do a lot of work on introducing new varieties into the Australian market.
“We’re going to use this as an opportunity to test with consumers some of the new material that we have the opportunity to commercialise and have some real-time data back from them about what they prefer.”
The centre will be at the gateway to the park.
Montague drew up a masterplan and received a planning permit earlier this year.
“Now we’re at the point of trying to raise finance for the project,” Rowan said.
“It will double our apple packing here, and stone fruit.
“It will drop 10 to 15 per cent off the cost of that distribution.”
This will allow export sales to expand.
“We’ll offer more distribution services for other growers. Instead of all these small growers having to do all this investment, we can have a centralised consolidation point.
“The project cost has come in at about $45 million.
“We’re in the process of how to make it a reality.”
Rowan hopes it will be up and running by mid-2019.
“If everything went well, we’d hope to start construction in early 2018,” he said.
“This existing site will be converted into bulk storage, basically.”
The project could create up to 50 jobs, which Rowan said could benefit those leaving the car industry.
“These will be semi-skilled positions,” he said.
“We’re pretty excited about the prospects for horticulture.”
Montague wants to make bigger in-roads into Asia and increase Australia’s branding there.
“We’ve been talking with both the state and federal government about all of that,” Rowan said.
“They’re very supportive.”
The new centre would become a testing ground for new varieties. Visitors could pick their own straight from the tree.
Montague has relationships with breeders all over the world.
“There’s some big breeders in New Zealand. There’s a couple of big ones in North America and a lot in Europe,” Rowan said.
“We periodically visit them.
“We’ve got the rights in Australia to some breeding programs.”
He’s always on the look-out for something new to introduce to the Australian market.
“Typically from identifying a variety in a breeders test block and getting it to market is a 10-year process,” he said.
“Right now we’re testing about eight new varieties and about 40 new stone fruit varieties.
“We go through about a five-year testing phase, to see if it can be grown in Australian conditions.
“The most successful introduction of a new variety was jazz.
“It’s 10 years this year since we planted the first of that.
“We’ve been selling it for six years.
“It’s grown steadily and it’s become really successful.”
Rowan said Montague invested in a breeding program in France a couple of years ago that’s producing red-fleshed apples.
“We’re pretty excited about them,” he said.
“There’s more acidity to them, like a Granny Smith.
“The colour and flavour are a radical departure from standard apples.
“That’s probably a big jump forward.
“Everyone’s trying to breed red flesh apples.
“We won’t sell just for flesh. It’s got to eat as well.
“It’s got to be everything you want it to be as an apple.
“After five years of investment, we had the first two apples in Australia this year.”
Plums with a sweeter red flesh have hit the market this year, for the first time.
“They’re proving to be really popular in Asia as well,” Rowan said.
“We’ve also just tested another apple this season in the local Pakenham, Gippsland area, from Japan – Shinano Gold.
“We’re growing that with a couple of growers in the Pakenham-Drouin area.
“We’re really excited by what that looks like.”
Smitten from New Zealand was another newcomer this year.
Envy is sweet and large and “really good for Asia”, and was sold for the second time this year.
Ambrosia from Canada will be available next year.
“The innovation is just coming very quickly now,” Rowan said.
“We’re going to need to be much more specific about the characteristics of each apple.”
Crunch is a must, and seasonality is becoming a bigger factor.
“Customers want them straight off the tree,” he said.