Grower, packer and shipper Qualipac has been growing vegetables in the state of Queensland since 1906, these days they have growing regions in South East Queensland, Southern Downs and the Darling Downs. With the closest air and sea ports to access the overseas markets in Brisbane, which are about 90km from the main inbound, handling and outbound facility of fresh Australian produce in Gatton, Queensland.
It has been a tough growing season according to Kees Versteeg from the company. “Growing conditions have been tough as more than 67 per cent of Queensland remains drought-declared, including all of south-east Queensland. Though as growers we know how to manage these natural situations and tend to adapt where we need to as growers anywhere always tend to do.”
Qualipac uses over 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) of quality land to grow vegetables and supplies to the domestic and overseas markets about 150-200 metric tonnes of broccoli each and every week during their broccoli production and supply season.
“The domestic market has been very good leading up to July this year with domestic demand exceeding domestic production and supply. Covid-19 has shut down the majority of our hospitality industry in Australia and more families are preparing their meals at home. We have definitely seen a major shift in our domestic supply chain in Australia due to Covid-19. We predominantly supply our fresh produce direct from our own farms to the major Australian retailers, the domestic wholesalers as well as export to our overseas markets.”
Qualipac’s main export markets are the Middle East and Asia, but due to Covid-19, air freight capacity to these markets have been and still are affected and associated air freight related costs have almost tripled compared to pre Covid-19 times. “This has, and still is, putting a big strain on air freight export activities and a noticeable shift is apparent – movement from air freight to cheaper sea freight options for exporting fresh Australian produce that can endure the longer sea freight voyages without detrimental quality problems upon arrival to our overseas customers.
“Australia is ranked as the 2nd highest paid minimum wage country in the world and if our global competitiveness wasn’t already struggling pre Covid-19 time, it has definitely made it a lot more difficult during these Covid-19 times to be globally competitive.”
Qualipac uses over 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) of quality land to grow vegetables and supplies to the domestic and overseas markets about 500 – 750 metric tonnes of onions each and every week during their onion production and supply season.
Back in March that the domestic market was difficult with less food service open and things are still not fully operational with each different State or Territory in Australia dealing with Covid-19 related issues affecting these industries. Subject to the Covid-19 situation in each State or Territory there are different operating rules for these industries. The Australian food service and hospitality industry have been severely affected and according to Kees it’s anyone’s guess as to when these will be operating again as “normal”.
“Our main Queensland onion season is about to start within weeks and our yellow/brown, red and white Queensland onions are looking very good and promising. Our main export markets are the Middle East and Asia. Queensland grown short-day onions are unique compared to intermediate or long-day onions produced in our more southern growing regions of Australia. Queensland onions tend to be lighter in colour, milder in taste and lower on tear-causing pyruvic acid and the majority of short-day Queensland onions are hand harvested to ensure the highest quality.
The majority of Qualipac’s fresh produce is harvested by hand and due to Australia’s high cost of production, automation, robotics and other nifty ways to reduce labour costs have been on the forefront for some years, even pre Covid-19 times.
“Covid-19 brought along problems, such as the availability and the organising of people to harvest and handle our fresh produce on our farms and main handling facility in Gatton. With Covid-19 procedures in place – such as the distancing policies – it has placed more strains on our productivity and associated production costs. Solutions to reduce labour costs, reduce our reliance on people (that at times like these are hard to find) and become globally more competitive and attractive for overseas markets are gaining more popularity and traction than ever before.
“In the lead-up to Covid-19, container shortages were reported though we at Qualipac have not experienced difficulties booking these for our export markets. Covid-19 definitely played a role creating disturbances in both sea and air freight activities making it more challenging to exporting our fresh Australian produce to the overseas markets. Pre Covid-19 showed very consistent and reliable air and sea freight shipping schedules with sufficient freight capacity. Covid-19 has created a lot of problems with these shipping schedules that have become very inconsistent and have made it a challenge for fresh produce growers, packers and shippers such as Qualipac in timing your harvest, handling and packing and at the same time assuring you are supplying your overseas customers the freshest and best Australian produce available to them directly from the growers.”