Tassie Tigers roar into AsiaExport & Market Access
Andrew and Leeanne Scott of Scott Brothers in Tasmania have been doing their fair share of increasing Australia’s apple exports by sending shipments of their very own Tasmanian Tiger Fuji apples to Asia.
Exports remain a key focus for the Australian apple industry to provide new markets for our high value produce and to ensure a more competitive local market.
About a year ago Scott Brothers sent the first sea freight shipment of Australian-grown apples to China – a container of Tasmanian Tiger Fuji apples. And, at the time this article was being written, a trial shipment of the apples was in transit to Taiwan. Hopefully by the time you read this they will have successfully arrived – which will be the first time Australian apples have been sent to the country in many years, signifying an important achievement for the industry to maintain access to the market.
Those shipments, along with other apple exports from Tasmanian growers, have seen Australia’s apple exports jump nearly 50 per cent in the first half of this year.
Tasmanian Tiger Fujis have been shipped to a number of locations including China, Hong Kong and Thailand, thanks to some key help from Baden Ribbon, the Marketing Manager at Hansen Orchards in Tasmania. Baden assists the business with the marketing and shipment of the Tasmanian Tiger Fuji apples and has arranged for all the shipments to their Asian customers.
“We started working with Baden about three years ago when we started shipping into Hong Kong,” says Andrew. “We were originally flying them across in small shipments, then that grew into sea freight containers for Hong Kong, which culminated last year in a 40 foot container being shipped directly into China.”
Andrew adds that Baden’s marketing expertise has been invaluable and that as they start to produce more, and grow their international market, Baden will manage all the marketing for the variety. Hansen Orchards also exports cherries and other apples and retains good relationships and knowledge of buyers in Asia.
“I targeted our top end Asian cherry customers that I knew would embrace the apple and ensure it was directed towards the right consumers,” says Baden. “It is still early days and we have a lot of work to do but we have laid some really good foundations and the future looks exciting.”
The company that took half of the container of the Tasmanian Tiger Fujis – around 10 tonnes of fruit – gave it to their senior executives in gift packs as samplers in a hamper as a staff bonus and to see what they thought of the apples. This one supermarket chain employs 500,000 people – that’s more people than there are in Tasmania.
This was probably something of a lucky break for the team working with the apples because it meant that the fruit was presented as a high-end ‘special’ product and all the key people within that company who would sell the apples got the opportunity to sample them.
“We’ve had inquiries for orders that we can’t possibly fill, that we’ve had to say no to,” says Andrew. “Part of the learning process is that we are learning more about our customers, what apple sizes they want, and what size of customer we can deal with.
“Instead of selling to just one wholesaler with them doing distribution, which is what we would have done traditionally, we’ve tried to target particular apple sizes to the right customer.
“It may well be the wholesale market will take a certain size fruit, the supermarket chains will take a certain size, and the online retailers will take another size. That’s how we’ve tried to go about it and it seems to be working.”
Where it all started
Back in the 1980s, the Tasmanian industry got involved in testing imported Fuji apples from Japan in an effort to produce apples locally that would meet the needs of Japanese consumers and to get market access.
As part of this work, Scott Brothers managed the commercial trial site for around ten strains of Fuji apples and a selection of other apple varieties. The aim was to see how the trees would perform when managed by a grower in a commercial setting. While a couple of varieties did result from the trials, over time, the official trials fell by the wayside, but Andrew maintained his interest in the trees.
“I started selecting what I thought were better strains and taking notes on them,” says Andrew.
Over the many years of observing the trial trees, Andrew kept an eye out for any branches that looked different and produced different fruit – a ‘sport’ or bud mutation. Tasmanian Tiger Fuji came from one of these sports.
“The variety was totally different to anything else, simply because of its unique characteristics,” says Andrew.
But Tasmanian Tiger Fujis didn’t start life out as a unique, branded product.
The story behind the brand
To start with, the apples were just exported as Fuji.
“Exports were always a big part of this business, and we knew that we had to spread our risk, so we didn’t want to go totally domestic, so we decided to take a chance and focus on exports,” says Andrew. “For a lot of years it didn’t work. It was hard, and I wondered whether we’d done the right thing.”
And the reason it didn’t work?
“Because the Australian dollar went through the roof, and we tried to export with the dollar at $1.08, and we returned 50 per cent of production costs, and that’s not good in anyone’s language,” explains Andrew. “So we kept wondering what we could do to turn it around.
So with a variety that was indeed different they decided to embrace the fact.
“We decided that because the variety is different, it deserved a name of its own,” says Andrew. “I had always called it a Tiger Fuji so that’s how it got started.”
Baden then developed the branding to go with the name.
“I have been a big fan of Tasmanian Tiger Fuji for a few years and we both knew the apple just needed to be given the right opportunity and it would succeed,” says Baden.
Tasmanian Tiger Fujis are already off to a good start with a clever brand name for the Chinese market where tigers are a symbol for strength and power – a positive image to associate with. Andrew came up with the name Tasmanian Tiger Fujis himself. It neatly plays on the known clean green image of Tasmania; the symbolic meaning of the tiger as reflected in the striped look of the apples; and a much loved apple in Asia – Fuji. A further twist that ‘Australian-ifies’ the brand is Tasmania’s own history and mythology around the elusive (or is it extinct?) Tasmanian Tiger – adding the concept of rarity and uniqueness to the brand.
“It’s a striped variety, it is just going to be grown in Tasmania and the Tasmanian Tiger is a pretty iconic image for Tassie,” says Andrew. “A lot of people believe that the Tasmanian Tiger is extinct, but I’m not one of those, I believe it’s out there somewhere. It’s a pretty rare animal, which links with a pretty exclusive apple.”
To help with marketing and promotions, the Chinese buyers have indicated that they want to hear more of the ‘story’ behind Scott Brothers and Tasmanian Tiger Fujis.
“The market’s wanting us to be more involved than we traditionally were with exporting,” says Andrew. “They’re wanting the story of the product and where it’s come from, and this is an area we will work on.
“We’re always trying to improve what we do, trying to do our job better and trying to provide better service and better outcomes.”
Scott Brothers produced slightly more than 400 bins of the Tasmanian Tiger Fujis this year, and they expect to have 500 plus in the coming season, if all goes well. They also expect that will grow or plateau out a little higher than that and are planning to graft some more of their trees over to the variety.
“The intention is to increase our grower base in Tasmania and to see if we can prove that the variety is sustainable and profitable,” says Andrew. “It’s not something we want to necessarily keep to ourselves. It’s something that we want to continue to grow, but it’s a uniquely Tasmanian product, designed to grow in Tasmania.
“We’ve had interest from all over the place for it, which is good, but at this point in time we see the greatest strength as producers is the fact that we have it here in Tasmania only.”
And he remains clearly focused on returning profits to growers.
“It’s going to be driven from the grower up the chain and not the other way round,” says Andrew. “That’s what we really want to see, a viable opportunity for export.”
Tasmanian Tiger Fujis are grower-friendly trees that don’t have the russeting problems that other Fujis traditionally have. Their yields are estimated at more than 50 tonnes per hectare and they produce naturally medium-sized apples that colour well in Tasmania’s environment.
The fruit has a nice skin finish, is aromatic and has a good shelf life, a characteristic it was especially selected for so it could handle the journey to Asia.
Exports – always good
“I think it would be fair to say that, for fruit growers in Tasmania, it’s always a positive time to be in the industry when we are exporting,” says Andrew.
Scott Brothers is by no means new to exporting – with a history of growing apples that spans back to 1854 and across Tasmania’s heyday as the Apple Isle thanks to its contribution to supplying the United Kingdom with apples.
Andrew himself is a sixth generation apple grower and has childhood memories from the 1970s of a time when the ships sailed directly to Port Huon to load up with apples to ship to the world.
“That was an exciting time for the Huon Valley,” says Andrew. “As kids, we grew up in an export industry. It was nothing to see an apple ship tied up either side of the wharf, and another waiting to go in.”
When shipping containers took over and consolidation in the industry occurred, shipment of apples was transferred to Hobart. Andrew recalls shipping massive quantities of Red Delicious apples to Asia in the 1980s, with fruit also going to India, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Up until the 1990s, fruit was still being shipped internationally directly from Hobart, but now Hobart’s port does not service international freighters and Tasmanian fruit has to head to Melbourne first before it can travel overseas – a very costly leg of the journey.
“As the dollar started to rise, it all got a little bit tougher, and on and on it goes,” says Andrew. “People started to drop out of the industry, so all of a sudden there was not quite the volume there once was.
“But we’ve managed to export something in some capacity every year. We haven’t missed a year where we haven’t exported our apples – even in the middle of the global financial crisis when the dollar was at parity or above.”
But now he sees the tide is turning again – and it could be good news for apples growers.
“We’ve seen China open up, but not only China, it’s amazing the amount of product that goes into markets in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Papua New Guinea,” Andrew says.
He even mentions the potential, and history, of exporting to the Pacific Islands, Mauritius and Europe. But he is pragmatic and knows that market access may change or other factors may affect the profitability of exports.
“We’ve tried to spread our risk around by selling some apples locally, domestically (onto the mainland), and export,” says Andrew.
Moreover, Andrew is also open to exploring derivative products associated with the Tasmanian Tiger Fuji brand that may help to spread their risk and build the entire brand portfolio.
Many thanks to Andrew and Leeanne for their time to help prepare this article, to Baden Ribbon for his input, and to Fred and Hannah photography for taking the photos.