Tropical fruit ripe for the picking

01.06.22

Biting into a tropical fruit can conjure dreams of exotic destinations and remind us of far-flung places we’ve visited. But what if we didn’t have to travel overseas to taste the best tropical fruit? What if we could grow it – and taste it – in our own backyard? In Northern Australia, a small but passionate group of growers is finding out, driving the growth of Australia’s tropical fruit industries.

The domestic tropical fruit industry is located in the tropical and subtropical regions of northern Australia. In the Northern Territory, the industry is centred around a 100km radius of Darwin. In Queensland, the majority of production occurs along the coastal strip within a 150 km radius of Cairns.

It’s a highly diverse industry with more than 60 tropical fruit species already grown in Australia. Both jackfruit and rambutan are already estimated to have gross value of production of more than $2 million annually, but there is potential for these figures to increase substantially.

Through a comprehensive consultation process, the emerging tropical fruits industry recently identified jackfruit, rambutan, durian, dragon fruit and longan as having significant growth potential in Australia.

This led AgriFutures Australia to fund the Australian Emerging Tropical Fruits Strategic RD&E Plan, which Laura Skipworth, AgriFutures Emerging Industries Program Manager, says has two main benefits.

“The Plan is a valuable resource that the emerging tropical fruits industry can use to promote itself to investors, stakeholders and other industries” she says.

“It articulates to these other interested parties what they can do to get involved and support the tropical fruits industry.

“Secondly, it highlights the priority areas for investment, so potential funding bodies and investors can have the confidence that they are investing in the highest priority RD&E projects for the industry.”

Ultimately, she says, the plan will align and centralise efforts to help to build a stronger, more profitable and resilient industry.

“While the vastness of the Northern Australia region comes with many challenges including workforce, transport and logistics, we’ve seen other industries perform successfully, so there’s a real sense that one or more of these emerging tropical fruits might be the next up-and-coming tropical fruit crop.”

According to Greg Owens, who was involved in the development of the Strategic RD&E Plan in his role as the NT Farmers Industry Development Manager, there is considerable alignment across each of the crops in terms of what is needed to secure the future of the industry.

“Biosecurity and pest management is a common concern for growers,” he says.

“This has been highlighted by the challenges faced by our neighbours in South East Asia.

“There are also difficulties with seasonal worker availability, which have been brought to the forefront over the past few years.”

The Plan also identifies that most of the emerging tropical fruits require improved production of clonal material. Currently, there is uncertainty that clonal materials are truly what they claim to be, and that these clones are the best options for different regions of northern Australia. This can impact market confidence and lead to varied quality outcomes.

“There’s a bright future for these crops if we can crack the propagation techniques,” says Mr Owens.

“We’re getting close with rambutans and jackfruit, which is good because it’s already hard to fulfil the market demand for these fresh fruits in southern states.”

If the above can be addressed, along with other species-specific actions outlined in the Strategic RD&E Plan, Australian-grown emerging tropical fruit will be able to take advantage of local competitive advantages including higher food safety standards and better supply chain traceability.

However, the Plan outlines that for this to occur, domestic interstate trade needs to be more efficient, which could be achieved by adding tropical exotic fruits to the Interstate Certification Assurance (ICA) Scheme.

Importantly, the industry knows there is no need to reinvent the wheel; they can take advantage of lessons already learned from overseas markets. For example, durian supply chain management is very complex but already advanced in Asia. Furthermore, flower-induction techniques that are used in South East Asia could be used here to help Australian producers to meet market demand with higher-quality local products.

As Greg concludes, “These emerging tropical exotic fruits are all at different stages of industry development but the signs for the future are very encouraging.”

For more information about the AgriFutures Emerging Industries Program, visit Australian Emerging Tropical Fruits Strategic RD&E Plan | AgriFutures Australia