Lenswood Apples grows, packs and markets more than 20,000 tonnes of fruit annually, accounting for 70% of South Australia’s apple crop and nearly 10% of Australia’s national production.
The co-operative began an expansion push in 2010 and now exports some 2,000 tonnes a year to eight countries across Asia and the Middle East.
It also recently delivered 50 shipping containers of premium Pink Lady apples to Britain, following a deal with supermarket chains Tesco and Morrisons.
Chief executive James Walters said having a hi-tech packing machine and being able to identify and act quickly on opportunities had been central to Lenswood’s export growth.
“We identified there’s a four-to-six-week window at the end of the southern-hemisphere season and before the start of the northern-hemisphere season where there was a gap,” Walters said.
“Countries like South Africa and New Zealand that had traditionally filled that gap were having quality issues with their fruit.
“There was an opportunity for us to do 50 or 60 containers if we could get the job done right. We couldn’t have even considered it before.”
Getting the “job done right” included growing the fruit so it met EU standards and obtaining packing shed accreditation while maintaining local customers.
The 50 containers of premium apples were packed in the first four weeks of the new packing machine’s operation before making the six-week boat journey from South Australia to England.
“We went over there to see our first few containers arriving and to see very good out-turns of the fruit was pleasing,” Walters said.
“Now Southeast Asia starts to open up and we are shipping to Malaysia and Thailand now. They were existing markets but with the new equipment we are able to identify the sweeter fruit, which is what they want.
“Because Australian apple production is high cost we’re always looking for unique market opportunities, we’ve got to be quite selective and when we go we’ve got to be prepared to go pretty hard.”
Lenswood looked to French company MAF Roda Agrobotic to source the A$5m (US$3.7m) sorting and packing equipment.
The pre-sizer machine takes 100 photographs of each apple to instantly sort them by size, colour, grade and quality and uses infrared technology to assess sweetness levels and check for internal imperfections.
The system, which also washes and weighs fruit, has enabled the co-operative to process apples at a higher speed and more accurately and precisely than ever before.
Walters said the new line could clean and sort up to 22 tonnes an hour compared with eight or nine tonnes under the previous system.
It also involves a bank of screens in the control room to allow staff to monitor, analyse and select random samples for further checks.
A new focus on trademark and targeting unique fruit varieties such as Pink Lady, Rockit, MiApple and Red Love to specific markets has also been a key to growth.
“Four years ago we looked at our exports and they were less than 1% of our total turnover. This year they will be nearly 10% and by 2020 we’d like to see it at about 30%,” Walters said
“We bought our first pre-sizer in 2010, and by 2016 we’ve already had to upgrade it because the volumes have come on.
“One thing at Lenswood is we’re not scared of looking at new innovation that comes up at any time. We put the first bio-waxer in last year that polishes every apple up like a toffee apple. So we’re always looking at what we can do: whether it be pre-packing equipment, apple varieties, farm equipment, we certainly like to be on the cutting edge.”
Lenswood has this year also opened a joint-venture juicing plant to add value to its off-grade fruit. The juice is predominantly sold to large-scale cider makers.