Fourth generation Huon Valley apple and pear grower Mark Duggan knew things had to change when his return for a year’s hard work didn’t even cover costs.
“We had a year where we just got nothing,” he said. “We knew we had to do something. We had to look outside the square. Cider was taking off and so we headed off to Europe to talk to cider makers and see if it would work for us.”
But it was the side trip to visit the home of Mark’s Irish forebears rather than the cider research that set he and wife Christine on the path they have taken to regaining control of what they produce.
“The Duggans come from Mayo, in Ireland,” he said. “On the way there we saw a juice stall by the road and we stopped to talk. Jonagold was the variety. That was the big thing, because we had a lot of Jonagold and the supermarkets had just said ‘no’ to Jonagold.”
Mark and Christine came back, did some investigation into juice, bought a small spiral juice press and a pasteuriser – “the cost of that blew out by 50pc!” – and began making juice.
“That was six years ago and we’ve covered the costs already,” he said.
Juice is produced every week – 1200 litres per week (the juicer can do 300l an hour) – and is pasteurised at 80 degrees and allowed to cool overnight before bottling. “Demand varies but we sell a couple of thousand litres a year,” Mark said.
“Pasteurising the juice gives it that texture, it looks more attractive and it last longer. There are no preservatives and no added colour. It is just natural.”
Half the fruit from the orchard’s 5000 Jonagold trees now goes into juice sold under the Huon Valley Juice label. New lines include apple and strawberry, utilising second-grade strawberries from a nearby strawberry farmer, and an apple and blackcurrant is also planned, also using local fruit. Huon Valley Juice also produces apple cider vinegar.
Pulp left over from juicing is in turn used by another neighbour, celebrity farmer and chef Matthew Evans, to feed his pigs.
The juice is marketed in 600ml, 1 and 2 litre containers for around $2/litre in independent retailers across the region and at the well-known Salamanca Market in Hobart where Huon Valley Juice runs a stall.
The Duggan orchard just out of Cradoc in the beautiful Huon Valley is just 8.5 hectare in size but has 17 different varieties of apples – including heritage varieties Gravenstein, Cox Orange Pippin, Lady in Snow and the locally-bred Crofton – and seven of pear. Some of the pear trees are 100 years old and the newest apple trees are 4200 Scilate trees, fruit from which is marketed as Envy, which were grafted onto old Red Delicious trees four years ago and now account for a third of the orchard.
The orchard has recently converted to organic.
“We initially registered all but the Envy as organic, as we weren’t sure how the Envy would go,” he said. “But it has done very well also and is now in conversion.”
“Organic is a lot of hard work and is completely different to conventional,” he said. “There is a lot of monitoring and we spend more time on the tractor spraying sulphur than we did spraying chemicals. But the premiums are there.
“A lot of people say to us ‘is this organic’ because they have this idea that if it is organic it has holes it, but it isn’t like that.”
Mark says as the juice is all processed on the orchard rather than incurring off farm storage, packing, grading and transport costs, costs are kept to a minimum and it provides a steady cash flow from the weekly sales.
Juicing has the added benefit of allowing him to keep the quality of the fresh fruit he continues to send weekly to Epping in Melbourne and sell locally at Salamanca Market very high.
“Having the juice allows me to come down really hard on the fruit we are sending and only send the very best,” he said. “You can cull as hard as you like. The waste off the grader is used for blending. If you don’t have the juice option, you are just giving it away to people to make money out of you.”
Packing and grading – on an early Lightning grader that has graced the shed since Mark’s father Lionel’s time – is done at the shed by Mark, Christine and their one permanent employee.
Benefits of diversification
“Moving into juice is more about taking back control than boosting returns,” Mark said. “Other than Envy (which is a club variety, managed in Australia by Montague), we can control what we do with it and where we send it.
“The supermarkets couldn’t see that our costs were going up and our prices were going down,” he said. “The person who has the most influence on the market is the person selling the fruit the cheapest. We couldn’t control the prices we were getting.
“We’ve got a cash flow now because people buy it every week.”
Getting the juice to people requires a significant commitment and Mark travels around the Huon region IGAs, fruit retailers and up into the Midlands to deliver the fresh fruit and juice and maintain the personal connection Mark believes is key to ensuring people want to put Huon Valley Juice and Duggan brand apples and pears on their shelves.
“We deliver to the door,” he said. “We don’t just leave the order and drive off. We turn up, we talk about the footy team, we get everything.
“It’s your product, and you’re proud of it, you have to have that personal connection with the person buying it.”
Diversifying into juice has restored some control to Mark and Christine’s business and given them increased stability and security. A strong brand identity, customer network and better control of what they sell and where has also given them a renewed sense of pride in what they produce and optimism.
“We could expand, but we don’t want to. Taking on people is more work and more cost,” Mark said.
“It’s our turn now. We’ve done enough hard yards. We live in a good spot, the apples grow well here. We are happy to just keep getting the quality out there.
- Juice provides a steady cash flow and an outlet for fruit of secondary grades
- Diverting fruit to juice maintains high quality Class 1