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The Far North Queensland Tropical Fruit Enigma

We live in a lucky country, which we take for granted. Many Southeast Asian migrants moving to Australia experience a notable culture shock at the high price and difficulty finding fresh tropical fruits in this country.

Those who grew up eating the (free) tropical fruits from their parents' backyard, and Australians who travel to Southeast Asia have this misconception that tropical fruits "should be" available in abundance at low prices at street side stalls or green grocers exactly like in Asia. This misbelief needs to be reframed.

In the 2 years that The Thorny Fruit Co has been in existence, we are constantly (and dishearteningly) buggered with exclamations of "So expensive!" Our short answer to this is - supply vs demand economics.

Australian-grown tropical fruits are in scarce supply and will remain on the high end of the price spectrum for several reasons (and decades yet). The primary reason being the majority of tropicals are not grown commercially. Supply is scarce, trees are mostly slow growing, and high priced because it cannot keep up with consumption from a fast growing population of East & Southeast Asian migrants and well-travelled Australians who are familiar with these tropicals. The secondary reason is attributed to the basic cost of growing any produce in this country. Australia is a highly regulated agriculture industry for good reason. So growers' costs are increased for the required certifications and food industry standards (e.g. Freshcare, HACCP, etc) which Asian countries do not have, or have little requirements. This alone adds on to the cost of growing and selling any produce in Australia. But that's another blog on its own.

Where The Wild Tropicals Grow

Australia is a continental island with eight climate zones, where only 3% is rainforest located within the tropical climate zone in Far North Queensland (FNQ).

The fresh tropical fruits that The Thorny Fruit Co sources like the durian, mangosteen, rambutans, duku-langsat are typically classified as Ultra-Tropical that can only grow successfully within the Australian rainforest tropical climate zone. This means that to successfully grow and hit fruit-bearing maturity age, the trees require average annual temperature between 21°C to 30°C, with approx 2000-3000mm annual rainfall and a distinct wet vs dry season to aid flowering and fruiting. With durian trees, they would usually die (or not fruit) when grown at temperature levels under 12°C, and in frost prone regions.

About (95%) of the tropical fruits grown in Australia are not endemic. Whilst Australian native tropical fruit exist, the majority of FNQ tropicals are human-introduced fruit species from the world's tropical regions including Southeast Asia, East Asia, Tropical West Africa, Central and South America. Hence coping with a different environment means many of these tropical fruit trees need to evolve and adapt to survive.

The other factor that makes Australian tropicals very challenging to grow in FNQ is the annual cyclonic weather patterns that do not occur in Southeast Asian regions. There are annual rainfalls of 9000mm in some regions of Far North Queensland, that can negatively affect tropical fruits.

From the 13,000 mature durian trees grown in FNQ at commercial levels from the mid-80s and late 1990s, Cyclones Winifred (1986), Larry (2006) and Yasi (2011) wiped out the trees down to less than 600 standing. This was enough to prompt many growers to give up on durians, and other tropicals with decades long fruit bearing age. This left many growers bankrupt, and orchards abandoned.

Categorising FNQ's Tropical Commercial Availability

Whenever The Thorny Fruit Co receive questions on why there's not enough fruit available for pre-order, the common answer we respond with is "These are not commercial crops." Yet we get people reply, "We don't want a lot."

From where we stand even if 10 people demand for "not alot", say only 500g or 1kg calamansi and we only have 2kg in stock, this means there is not enough to meet our commercial demand.

Often, the 2kg we get are from backyard trees. Backyard growers are merely subsistence crops, trees meant to be grown as food for the landowner, not for sale by a business entity.

This means that there are no large scale production of ultra-tropical fruit growers who make a profit out of tropical mono-crops. Neither are there any ultra-tropical fruit growers with commercial capital intensive investment, nor Australian government agricultural funded support. In fact, the large majority of ultra-tropical fruit growers are on small/medium self-funded private acreage, or even backyard properties.

We would like to classify Australian tropicals into three categories:

  • Commercial/Cash crop. Low risk, high yield. Fruits such as cavendish and sugar bananas, sugar cane, lychees, pineapple, custard apples, avocado, papaya, passionfruit, cocoa and mangoes. These are currently grown in large scale multi-million dollar agricultural farming setup, and are supplied in abundance to chain supermarkets like Coles, Woolworths, IGA and Aldi. These crops have been selected as commercially viable mainly due to its high yield, and short fruiting lifespan/turnover of less than 1-2 years. The Thorny Fruit Co will not usually supply and source these fruits unless they are rare varietals like the red/purple custard apples, specialty green Asian mangoes like Harumanis, Chok Anan/Chokodam, Keow Savoy, Bluggoe/Saba and Blue Java bananas.
  • Emerging crop. Medium/low risk, high to medium yield. Secondary tropical crops such as mangosteen, rambutan, longan, jackfruit, soursop, breadfruit, dragonfruit, ube/purple yam, pomelos, calamansi limes, and turmeric are a relatively fast growing crop, and emerging commercial category. Some of these crops cannot be grown as mono-crops due to eco-diversity dependance with other tropicals. While fruit yield per acreage can be reasonably high, some trees such as the mangosteen can take about 8-15 years to begin fruiting.
  • Boutique crop. High risk, medium-high yield. We would classify durians, ciku/sapodilla, duku-langsat and cempedak as a high risk investment as they take anywhere between 10-15 years to grow from seedling to fruit-bearing age, and are much more climate sensitive. These fruits are currently grown in FNQ by small to medium size self-funded hobbyist growers. Fruits in this category are rare in supply, high in demand, therefore expensive as local FNQueenslanders enjoy durian and the bidding war for interstate exported durian has affected the local market prices in the last 5 years. None of these fruits currently exist as a commercial crop in Far North Queensland.

We should probably add a fourth category - the undiscovered/untapped, rare backyard tropicals with commercial potential. Produce such as kencur/sand ginger, edible ferns (paku pakis), red ginger/jahe merah, white and black turmeric, snakefruit/salak - all exist and grow well in regions around FNQ. However, the commercial demand for them have not been made known to those who currently grow them.

The Growers

In Far North Queensland, the current tropical fruit growers come from two main backgrounds:

  • Two or three generations sugar cane or banana farmers who converted (or are converting) their plantation into multi-crop tropical fruit orchards; or
  • First or second generation families who are simply tropical rare fruit enthusiasts who collected seeds from all over the world, then grew tropical fruit for own consumption.

In understanding that most of the tropical fruit we source from Queensland are from the second category of growers, it is evident that the scale, quality and availability of many of the fruits is not of commercial standards.

The Thorny Fruit Co have met a few of these FNQ growers, and it is safe to say the majority of them are unfortunately not full time farmers. Most have day jobs which force them to feed their family, whilst the tropical fruit harvests can be erratic due to weather, earning them only enough to survive barely 3 months of the year.

Beggars cannot be choosers

Yes, Australian tropicals may be expensive in comparison to our Asian counterparts. But this is a fledgling industry.

In turning down buying from these small number of Australian growers, we are inadvertently telling them with our purchasing power that there is no commercial interest in their crop. Otherwise, how else would they be earning an income to grow into a larger orchard.

Unless we invest in what they can grow for us today, we won't be able to enjoy any of the fresh tropical fruits of their labour tomorrow.

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