A passion for brand and a tireless focus on improving quality and reducing unit costs are making dreams come true for Prima Fresh owner Gerard Alampi.
In just 14 years since taking over the Tatura-based family business in 2003, the 35-year-old third-generation fruitgrower has taken it from a small family concern packing around 8,000 bins primarily for wholesale markets, to a vertically-integrated business, with 300 hectares of orchards, producing approximately 35,000 bins of apples, pears and stonefruit a year and packing nearly double that.
Prima Fresh now has coveted direct retailer supply status, sells Prima Fresh-labelled fruit into both Coles and Aldi, independent green grocers and wholesale markets, backed by a strong grower supply network.
Plans approved by Greater Shepparton Council in mid-September to build the first stage of a state-of-the-art packhouse, which when complete will comprise multi lane pre-grading equipment to ensure the gentlest and most efficient handling of fruit, alongside multiple packing lines delivering the flexibility to pack the wide range of fruit varieties and types grown and packed by Prima Fresh and room for growth, are well underway.
Add to that a steady progression of strategic orchard leases, sales and purchases (both in the Goulburn Valley and further north), alone and in partnership, and an exhaustive focus on customer relationship building and it’s clear this is a business with a vision.
“My goal was to build a brand – not just the best packed but the best eating fruit – and we want our customers to keep coming back for return sales and for people to be looking to us for the eating quality, not only looks,” Gerard said.
Eating quality number one focus
Central to establishing a brand known for its eating quality is ensuring the best possible fruit quality.
“We tend to be our own worst enemy and focus on good-looking fruit,” Gerard said. “No brand goes far on substandard product so improving eating quality is the number one focus.”
Focus on fruit quality began as a response to the decline in processing demand from the once-dominant SPC and Ardmona canneries when the family business was still run by Gerard’s father Sam (who emigrated from Sicily in the 1960s) and immediate family.
“We saw that the canneries’ direction was changing,” Gerard said. “It was hard to make money on fruit for canneries and we could see the writing on the wall. We wanted to grow better fruit.”
Gerard’s father passed away in 1999 and Gerard returned to the orchard after completing Year 11 and, with his uncles, set about adapting the orchard to improve packouts and returns. When he bought out the family in 2003 he stopped packing temporarily to focus entirely on fruit quality.
“We put a lot of work into pruning, nutrition, irrigation technologies and chemicals,” he said. “We had pears, apples, apricots, nectarines and predominantly Williams pears but we started to pull the Williams out.
“It was hard to make the change, opening up the trees and cleaning up the orchard. We do tend to do as we have always done. A lot of people said it was not going to work but when they saw the results we had lots of interest.”
Knowledge shared at a young growers’ group with fellow growers provided insight into what was being done overseas and in other areas.
“It was excellent. We took the ideas. We opened up the orchards, planted higher densities, adopted new varieties, trellised and planted on a large scale.
“I was always reading all the tree fruit magazines, from Australia and the USA, I asked a lot of questions and spent a lot of time doing research and I learnt a lot from my uncles as well.
All new Prima Fresh apple and pear plantings are now established at high-density, with 2,500 trees per hectare (4m x 1m spacing) trained upright and net-ready.
“Everything we plant in apples and pears, we net,” he said. “To reduce sunburn, protect against hail, and for the high packouts to guarantee supply for our customers.”
Although Gerard estimates establishment costs average $30,000 per hectare, he said it was an investment that was repaid in much higher packout rates than those achieved on the older Granny Smith blocks, where packouts could be as low as 50 per cent and were barely break even.
“New blocks with good pre-training, slender spindle type system and especially those with netting and overhead cooling, are rarely below 70 per cent packout and usually 70-95 per cent,” he said. “On certain blocks we have achieved 98 per cent. We are slowly rejuvenating and increasing the average yield per hectare.”
He said although expensive, the netting, overhead sprinklers and fans for frost protection were risk-management tools for protecting his investment and maintaining quality in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather.
“The Goulburn Valley has a great climate and soil and you get a very good eating quality if you pick at the right time,” he said. “I still think the traditional Pink Lady®/Cripps Pink grown properly in our normal conditions grows a beautiful apple, as do the Granny Smith, and pears.
“But the challenge is the spikes in temperature and the fluctuations from hot to cold at the wrong times that affect quality, growth and shelf life.
“We are trying to adapt to this to try to think of ways to manage, whether by changing to better-suited varieties, picking earlier or later, or using overhead cooling and other techniques.”
New varieties play a key role in improving eating quality and new plantings include the Belgian-bred Gala Braeburn cross Kanzi®, the Western Australian-bred Bravo™ and new varieties of stone fruit.
“We are spending a lot of time and research in looking at new varieties of apples and pears and are currently trialling new varieties in our test blocks to see how they perform in our conditions in the Goulburn Valley,” Gerard said.
“I love Kanzi; it’s a great eating apple and has a lot of potential,” he said. “The feedback from the customers during my independent retailer research is that they love the way they eat. It can be grown here but it needs to be done properly from the start. We are planting it this year under nets at 2,500 trees/hectare, which is our standard.”
Pears account for a third of production. Falling demand for the traditional canning Williams pear is seeing it replaced with varieties selected for eating quality. Current plantings are Williams (18%), Josephine (7%), Corella (27%), Beurre Bosc (14%) and Packhams (34%).
“The difficulties that we are facing with Williams Bon Chretien are the short shelf life combined with a large independent retail preference for Packhams. Once the Packhams come in, the demand for Williams drops off which then impacts value and Williams are recognised as a discounted pear mostly sold as a promotional item.
“Williams are quite costly to grow and manage and require a lot of effort and input to achieve high packouts and yields, so at low prices, we are receiving below cost returns. I see a lot of potential for new pear varieties in the future.”
A brand new way to maximise returns
While eating quality is the key production focus, an unwavering focus on making the most of both asset and brand has driven the steady expansion of orchard area and packing capacity and the development of the Prima Fresh brand.
“Our focus is to keep the quality up while looking at every part of the business to keep costs down so we can survive,” Gerard said.
“We love what we do; we love growing fruit. We don’t want to get squeezed out so we are always trying to be more efficient both for ourselves and so that we can reward the growing group for what they are doing.”
Having grown up on a family orchard – Gerard’s maternal grandfather bought his first orchard in Mooroopna when he emigrated from Sicily in the 1950s – Gerard said he learned early the value of making the most of what you have.
“My grandfather had a market stall and he sold our fruit and also bought from other growers as well to make ends meet,” he said. “In the early 70s we built coolstores to extend the season.”
Gerard said the launch of the Prima Fresh brand in 2009 was motivated by the desire to do more with the fruit.
“The brand is about doing more than just producing great-quality fruit and selling it,” he said. “It is about ‘How do I do something different and get rewarded for all that effort’, ‘How do we build a brand that is recognised as premium’.
“We were growing beautiful fruit but we wanted to reach people who were prepared to pay for it.”
He said managing a brand brought new challenges and opportunities and the business had expanded as it acted to extend the range and season of fruit it could produce by buying orchards with early-maturing varieties or in earlier-maturing regions.
In 2013 Gerard bought the 182ha apple, pear and stone fruit Kaarimba Orchard in partnership with business partner and fellow orchardist Nabi Baqiri.
The growing demand for fruit led to the formation of a select premium growers’ group, which now supplies just under half of Prima Fresh’s fruit.
“Building a brand means not just quality but consistency and forming a relationship with customers,” he said. “We got more fruit so we could keep the brand in the stores and build the relationship with customers. When we had no pears, we had stone fruit.
“We had competitors starting in October and we couldn’t start until November so in 2015 we partnered into a stone fruit orchard in Swan Hill (Sunny Side vineyards). It was a perfect partnership investment for us as the business understood the importance of growing and packing premium quality fruit to meet our customer expectations. It grows very good fruit and the orchards are immaculate reflecting the passion we share for our product. That very early-maturing fruit bolted on very well to our marketing program, secured our stock and took us to the next level.”
Gerard visits independent retailers regularly to be sure he is supplying what they want.
“There is always room to improve,” he said. “We visit them and see what they want and what waste they get.”
Making sure premium product is presented well is a priority and Prima Fresh currently has 15 different pack types in addition to the Coles brand packaging.
“We wanted to reward the extra effort of growing premium-quality fruit by putting it in row packs or punnets or nicely patterned packs and wrapped. Sometimes it doesn’t work but most of the time the grower has grown good fruit of a good size and you do achieve premiums.
“I see what we do as quite unique – we have a full product range, which is great for customers as a one-stop-shop as we can supply whatever is in season. This keeps staff working as we are always packing something.”
Achieving supermarket direct relationships in 2013 was the realisation of a dream.
“It was probably one of the best things that happened to me in my life,” Gerard said. “It had always been my passion and my dad’s passion to have relationships in direct supply to the supermarkets.
Into the future
The new facility on the Midland Highway at Ardmona will put Prima Fresh in a small group of state-of-the-art packing facilities (with 9 Mile Fresh) both dramatically reducing unit costs and increasing its ability to meet any growth in demand.
Although the first stage is wholly Prima Fresh-funded, Gerard said it was a staged design with opportunities for co-investment at each stage. Planning and design are well under way with the intention that the first stage will be up and running by the end of next year with the capacity to pack over 70,000 bins of pome and stone fruit.
The additional bins will come from Prima Group growth – growers are growing and planting more – and there are plans to introduce more growers to the group.
“It will be my ultimate dream of what will be the best packhouse for my business based on everything I have learnt in 12 years of packing fruit, with controlled-atmosphere storage, water flumes, pre-sizing and multiple packing lines.
“Every year since we commenced suppling supermarkets direct we have had great opportunities for growth in our business. We have worked very hard to keep up with demand, and premium quality with what we grow and supply. We have been talking of upgrading but it is very expensive and it has taken us several years of research and understanding to develop the best fit solution for our business.
“Thirty to forty per cent of our costs are labour, compared to 10-15 per cent when we started, and we need to do something to reduce costs. This will give us more volume with no reduction in staff.”
He admits he took some convincing that the pre-sizer could deliver the extra productivity to justify the investment.
“It seemed like double-handling to run them through and then have to run another line to pack them,” he said. “But then when we ran the fruit through again and had 90 per cent plus packouts it made sense; you could see it cut costs by cutting out unnecessary inventory sitting around waiting for an order. If we pre-size we know what we have before we start selling and we are putting the right fruit in the right home. You could turn an order around in a few hours.”
Collaboration not competition
Gerard said he hoped the new packing facility would also provide an opportunity for a more cohesive supply and marketing approach among the Goulburn Valley’s many growers, creating new opportunities and efficiencies for other growers.
He said rising labour costs, increased compliance costs and more extreme weather had all eroded the industry’s margins and ability to reinvest.
“The intention is not to put anyone out of business – the intention is to encourage the industry to work closer together,” he said.
“We’ve created a buyers’ market. We are price-takers. The margin is so fine you need volume – a lot of the time you are just turning the money over. Europe was similar but they collaborated and all got together and worked out their differences.
“As farmers we are not competitors. We are looking at it the wrong way. We need to look deep inside ourselves and ask ‘What are the obstacles to going forward’, and the best way to do that is in groups.
“We have an oversupply of fruit. We need better marketing strategies, perhaps a marketing cooperative in each region and strategic planning to control over-supply. If we work together we have the opportunity to grow all three markets: supermarkets, wholesale and exports.”
He said change would take small steps and would be driven by the younger generation.
“There are lots of young people coming through. That’s good for industry to help drive it. We need the fathers and uncles to direct from experience but the young people have the drive and the vision and the passion.”