Sweet progress in Australian fruit

27th October 2020 | Alison Turner

New innovations in agriculture are promising to make Australian fruit even sweeter and more delicious than it already is. Advancements in growing, harvesting, processing and manufacturing methods won’t just bring more benefits to fruit-loving Australian consumers; they will also open up new opportunities for our hard-working fruit growers, both here at home and in potentially lucrative international export markets.

While berries are one of Australia’s more popular fruits, the frozen berry market in Australia is currently monopolised by imported fruit. Frozen berry producer Stuart McGruddy of My Berries in South East Queensland believes that this is due to a lack of industry knowledge and experience when it comes to the freezing and processing of berries and other soft fruits – something he has big plans to change.

Stuart McGruddy wants to make frozen Aussie berries more appealing to our manufacturers and retailers.

McGruddy has been awarded a Hort Innovation Churchill Fellowship which will allow him to explore the latest developments in technology that other berry-producing countries are using in the freezing of whole berries. This knowledge will help McGruddy and others like him in the Australian berry industry take advantage of new opportunities.

“Imported frozen fruits typically dominate the Australian market, while home-grown fruit tends to be puréed or juiced because there’s little understanding of the best manufacturing techniques for soft berries,” McGruddy says.

My Berries are frozen when the fruit is at its best, meaning a tastier and more nutritious product.

Some of the world-leading berry-producing countries that McGruddy plans to visit with his fellowship funding (once travel restrictions are loosened) include France, the US, Chile and Serbia. These countries have more advanced technologies and smart automation that make the processing of soft fruits like berries more efficient and less wasteful.

“The soft fruit industry in Australia is still in its adolescence, but in these other countries, it’s more well-established,” McGruddy says. “We want to get over there, get all over it and understand the processes more so we can adopt some of those methods and technologies and use them in our own manufacturing techniques.

“It’s also about the relationship between the growers and the processors in these countries – what does that look like, and how does it work?”

While McGruddy is already working to establish relationships with retailers and manufacturers in an effort to encourage them to switch to Australian-grown frozen fruits, understanding the processes and techniques used in other countries will help the Aussie berry industry become better equipped in the freezing of the fruit, which will make home-grown frozen berries more attractive to Australian businesses.

Can you spot the sweetest peach?

It’s pretty hard to know just how sweet a peach is going to be without taking a big bite out of it. But new hand-held sensing technology that can measure the sweetness of any stone fruit you point it at could soon make this possible.

The sensing device is one of three technologies currently being developed and tested in a new project launched by the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). “Sensors for Summerfruit” is a major and very promising Food Agility CRC project led by Agriculture Victoria in collaboration with RMIT University, Summerfruit Australia Ltd and Australian technology companies Green Atlas and Rubens Technologies.

The new tech will help growers to harvest their fruit at just the right moment.

Food Agility CRC Chief Scientist Professor David Lamb says the ultimate goal of the project is to help growers get the right piece of fruit to the right consumer at the right time.

“Two of the sensors will operate in the orchard helping to assess health status and predict fruit size, yield and maturity,” Professor Lamb explains. “A third sensor will be put to work in the packing sheds to detect sweetness, firmness and robustness for transport. It’s the closest thing to tasting the fruit, without actually taking a bite.”

The sensors will be soon be road-tested in commercial orchards and packhouses in Goulburn Valley, Swan Hill, Cobram and Sunraysia.

Growing the perfect plum: fruit that tastes great and is fit for travel.

Research Leader Crop Physiology at Agriculture Victoria Dr Ian Goodwin says the project will provide benefits to the summerfruit sector by growing export markets and improving harvesting and packing operations.

“Fruit is downgraded or redirected at the harvesting and packing stages because it doesn’t meet consumer preferences for that market,” Dr Goodwin says. “Or if fruit is harvested too early or too late, the quality can deteriorate in transit.”

By using these sensors, growers can tailor their practices to grow the fruit consumers want, triaging fruit in packing sheds and only exporting fruits deemed suitable to make the trip.

Chinese consumers prefer yellow nectarines that are sweet and low in acid, with a redder skin colour

Founder of Rubens Technologies Daniel Pelliccia says the aim of the project is to help our farmers grow the “perfect plum”.

“Growers need to be able to identify the right harvest timing for optimum quality, but that’s just the beginning,” he says. “A plum may taste fantastic at harvest, but is it robust enough to make the journey from Victoria to a market in Beijing? Our technology has the potential to give growers a fast answer without damaging the fruit.”

Such technology is already in use in apple, almond, kiwifruit, wine grape, avocado and cherry orchards in many countries. However, this project plans to go one step further, allowing our growers to measure not only the yield of flowers and fruit in an orchard, but also the size and colour of fruit, so they can harvest at the perfect moment.

The project is currently focusing on the Chinese market, but it’s also hoped that it will open up more opportunities for our growers in dozens of other export markets around the world.