Two pilot studies by the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, in collaboration with two major producers, are looking into improving the competitiveness of Australian vegetable exports.
The research results were presented to delegates at the Queensland Horticulture Export Congress, which was held in collaboration with Hort Connections. The project was divided into two main areas; First, how to improve the consistency of broccoli shipped by ocean freight to Asia, and second, how successfully mixed vegetable loads can be shipped by ocean freight to short haul markets such as New Zealand.
The first pilot is being conducted in partnership with Qualipac’s Kees Versteeg, who says the biggest challenge in exporting is balancing the cost of air freight against the shipping time of sea freight.
“About five years ago we thought if we wanted to compete on price we’d have to go for ocean freight because it would be the cheapest option to get them there,” he said. “The challenges are that your product will travel 7-14 days and shipping it by sea is a higher risk than shipping it by air. You have to take the good with the bad; you either ship by air and don’t get the sale because they are not willing to pay for it, or go by sea and take the risk, but bring it at the price at which the customer is willing to pay for it. The challenges are getting your product on the transport you can put the best produce in the container, you can get the temperature, humidity and air circulation right – but it can still arrive (damaged). Believe it or not, there are temperature fluctuations in the container. you would think you do it in the container, close the door and set it to zero degrees, you think it will be right. But it ended up a hit and miss. Some of the containers have mi problems t of technology. Not every container that goes is perfect. “
Photo: Kees Versteeg of Qualipac and Shane Quinn of the Mulgowie Farming Company (seated) and Jodie Campbell.
Senior horticultural expert Jodie Campbell stated that the pilot aims to create consistency with broccoli exports. This included going “back to basics” and looking at the exporting companies’ data to see what happened to temperature monitoring, quality assessment, and pre-shipment processing. She says the study also looked at storage time and temperature, as well as a number of different packaging and icing options.
One of the most important realizations was that temperature management during harvest is crucial, especially protecting the harvest from sun exposure after the harvest.
“From analyzing the data from the ocean freight containers, we saw that we had two degrees of deviation from these containers and fluctuations throughout the container,” said Campbell. “What we see is that the ice is melting because it’s not at zero, and in some cases it melts and then freezes again, which is causing this damage to the broccoli. But when we ran the simulations, because we were able to keep the temperature constant, we didn’t see any damage to the stems and heads. We almost always see the best shelf life of broccoli at zero-degree temperatures. Any increase in temperature – even one degree – will shorten this shelf life. The challenge is to predict the shelf life. If we had that predictability, if we could let the customer know if the temperature has risen above two degrees. The end of its shelf life was due to the softening of the broccoli heads. “
She added that there are more ways to explore the different packaging combinations between ice and plastic protective sleeves (MAP) with modified atmosphere. The only problem with the latter is meeting plant health and fumigation requirements.
Photo: Ian Layden
Ian Layden, of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, told Congress that the closure of borders due to COVID-19 in 2020 brought some additional challenges for exporters.
“Queensland’s vegetable exporters were still prepared to keep their promises to export broccoli, lettuce, green beans and sweetcorn to markets in Asia and New Zealand, for example, and at that time the International Cargo Aid Mechanism (IFAM) did not exist,” he said, “Growers knew that maintaining competitiveness and the transition to ocean freight would be a challenge, but at the time it was the only option. The data (from these pilots) will be important in making decisions about supply chain issues. “
The second pilot project deals with the combination of different vegetables in one container shipment, which is important for producers in order to continuously supply the market quickly and economically, instead of waiting less often for a full container of one commodity. Ms. Campbell explains that vegetables like green beans and sweetcorn, for example, have different optimal temperatures, and she worked with Mulgowie Farming Company to research how to balance and adjust the container temperature to match the shelf life of both
“We decided to look at the time and temperature duration, or what we call the ocean simulations,” she said. “We looked at four different temperatures for sweet corn and left them at that temperature for six days to simulate the time in the container to New Zealand. Then we took them out of those temperatures and kept them in a retail or household shelf environment until they reached their end of shelf life. We then did the same thing with green beans, but for these six days at a slightly higher temperature. We also had different packaging options: pre-packs, bulk and different foils and we found that you get a bit of variation between packs. What we can see is that we still have 10 days left on the market. The shelf life is a few days, but with the mixed shipments we can send them three times a week and still get at least seven days. So, yes, we can do the mixed charges, we just have to understand what we are mixing together. “