Dane and brother Brett Griggs of BW Griggs & Sons in Tasmania have successfully secured the sale of 120 tonnes of Rubigold® apples into China in 2015.
While Dane will be the first to note that his export success is based on a relatively small quantity of apples and that the business doesn’t have ambitions for huge growth, he is still one of only a few apple producers who have successfully exploited the market access that Tasmania has to China to ship apples there. Their case also demonstrates that you don’t have to be a large-scale grower to reap the benefits of exporting fruit and to trade with buyers in Asia.
“We’re still only a family business and we don’t have dreams of becoming one of the big players,” explains Dane. “We’ve probably got about 50 hectares of orchard growing the mainstream varieties of Gala, Pink Lady™, Fuji, a few Golden Delicious, and the Rubigolds.”
Dane manages the packing and marketing side of BW Griggs & Sons alongside his brother Brett, who looks after the production and harvesting. Together they developed Rubigold apples both as an apple variety and, now, as a coveted speciality brand.
It all began in the orchard about 14 years ago.
During a February, just before harvest, Dane and Brett were looking through one of their four orchard blocks in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. It was looking a bit grim.
“This particular block was on sandy soil and every year the fruit would never colour, but we noticed one limb on the bottom of one tree and there they were – six or eight highly coloured red apples,” says Dane.
The limb was a ‘sport’ – part of the tree that simply looks different and is genetically different to the rest of the plant. Sports can spontaneously arise at the point where a new bud develops and are effectively a natural mutation. In the apple world, sports are fairly commonplace and have been the birthplace of many apple varieties including Red Delicious.
“You come across these things every year or so, you find an odd limb, a bud mutation, and you just take a cutting of it, graft it onto another tree to see what happens,” says Dane. “Some years they revert back to their original varieties and sometimes they stay as they are.”
In the case of Rubigold (although the variety wasn’t named at that time) the apples retained their differences and their attractive attributes.
Dane took the apple to APAL’s Intellectual Property Manager Garry Langford for advice. They compared it to the original variety and observed a number of unique features including taste, texture and skin colour.
To obtain Plant Breeder’s Rights, which basically means you own the new variety, a proposed new plant must demonstrate “distinctness, uniformity and stability”. The unique features Dane and Garry observed in the Rubigold apples were enough for Dane to decide it was worthwhile to apply for Plant Breeders Rights, which he subsequently achieved with Garry’s help. He followed this up and secured the registered trade mark brand name ‘Rubigold’.
“After we trademarked the name Rubigold, we just slowly built it up from there,” says Dane. “It’s kind of a gamble with something new and you’ve got to create a whole new market. Out of all of it, that’s probably the hardest part – creating a brand and getting it accepted. The process has evolved over probably the last four years or so.”
A sophisticated eating apple
As for the Rubigold fruit, Dane describes it as having a multi-dimensional flavour profile with more to it than the simple sweetness of a Gala or Fuji apple.
“It’s a large apple, which is good for the export market,” explains Dane. “It’s harder to explain the flavour. It’s a complex sweet and sour flavour. When you first bite into it you get a crisp sweet burst and then by the end of your mouthful there is a dry cleansing sensation on the palate – like when you have a red wine. But that works perfectly because you crave that sweet hit again so you go for the next bite.
“It’s an 80-90 per cent deep red coloured apple with lime green background and golden flesh. That’s what the Chinese like because their favourite colours are red and gold.”
And yes – that’s where the name came from – well that’s part of the story anyway. The ‘Rubi’ part of the name is because of the rich red skin colour and the ‘gold’ is from the golden flesh inside.
“Also my grandmother’s name was Ruby, so there’s a bit of the family in there as well,” says Dane.
The road to export
Before Rubigolds landed on foreign shores, Dane had established some experience with exporting cherries into China and other apples across Asia when he first joined the family business in the 1990s.
“When I first came back to the farm in Tasmania we did a lot of exporting of Red Delicious into South East Asia and India and Democrats into Sri Lanka,” says Dane. “So, we’ve done exporting but always through an exporter; we were just a packing shed.
“The exporters who we’re with now have an office and staff in Shanghai as well as Sydney, so they are there to check quality and temperatures on arrival. If there is an issue we have personnel there to inspect and collect data to deal with it.
“Through our exporters we have aligned distributors in each of the three destination markets Guangzhau, Beijing and Shanghai.”
Dane has also exported Rubigolds into Hong Kong for the last two years and to Vietnam before market access was closed.
“At the moment we’re only sending small consignments into Hong Kong and they’re going into just the exclusive top-line supermarkets,” says Dane. “They were selling at HK$28 for two apples, which works out about AUS$2.50 an apple.
Dane airfreights the Rubigolds to Hong Kong while the ones sent to mainland China are sea-freight. They are sent loose in 12kg boxes then the retailers pre-pack in-store.
“I was over in China three weeks ago and had a look through all the markets,” says Dane. “There’s Galas and Fujis from all around the world and Red Delicious from America.
“If you haven’t got something different you’re really just there competing on price with the rest of the world including Chile and South Africa who have much cheaper production costs.
“With Rubigold we have something unique in that it only grows in one valley on one island just north of Antarctica! That’s something that the importers are really interested in as it gives them an exclusive product with a story attached and because we have control of supply it gives us more negotiating power to set an acceptable price.”
Dane adds that Australia’s reputation as a producer of food to high quality safety standards is also an important attribute in the Chinese market where affluent consumers are demanding safer food and willing to pay a higher price for it.
Better domestic prices
A key value benefit that Dane derives from exporting a proportion of his Rubigold apples is increasing his pack out rates and, in effect, the capacity to control supply domestically and negotiate with local buyers.
“Now that we’re exporting, our pack out rates are a lot higher because Rubigolds are a large fruit,” says Dane. “It’s harder to sell the really large fruit at a high price into a domestic market, but the export market wants the large fruit. So these goes to export and then the medium and smaller sized fruit I sell domestically.
“It’s just nice to have the two markets – you’ve got the domestic and the international, so price-wise you’ve got a bit more bargaining power.
Rubigold apples are sold into the wholesale markets in Melbourne, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Dane and Brett’s total production is around 1,200 bins and at this stage they are happy with keeping it at that and maintaining control of the supply, although they do have a couple of smaller scale growers producing some Rubigolds – all restricted to the Huon Valley.
“We just want to keep hold of what we’ve got and keep it under control,” says Dane. “We may not change the world but at least we’ve got a product that’s ours. It may be just an exclusive, small boutique line but if it keeps our family business going and our family fed, well, that’s fine by us.”
Thanks to the Griggs brothers for hosting an APAL visit to prepare this article.