A leading North Queensland papaya grower says it is important to increase consumer awareness of the fruit, and in turn consumption, to help grow the category and help meet rising production costs.
Skybury Farms, General Manager Candy MacLaughlin says input costs over the past twelve months across the whole farming industry have been "far beyond" what they could have predicted for transport, fuel, levies, packaging and labour.
"We pretty much held steady - that's probably the best way to sum up our approach to papaya in 2022," she said. "We now have to work out how to farm smarter to reduce our inputs and ensure that we are sustainable so we can carry that message through to our consumers. There has been a constant erosion of our ability to remain profitable, so that is where the effort is being put at the moment. When you have a business one of the challenges you face is how you ensure that we retain core staff and ensure they have opportunities for the future - that is generally where the growth comes from, not necessarily just producing more products. You have to give staff forward opportunities so they have something to look forward to and focus on."
She added that a main part of the strategy for 2023 and moving forward is educating consumers and expanding the fruit's presence on the retail shelf. Ms MacLaughlin says if the papaya industry is to continue to grow, and other farmers to come on and start producing, then as a collective group it has to be quite focussed on educating consumers about papayas in general, and what they can do with it.
"Over the Christmas period we were able to hold the papaya consumption," Ms MacLaughlin said. "There is always that challenge around what that time of year will bring for the papaya industry broadly when you have competition from mangoes and stone fruit. So, this year being able to hold consumption was very pleasing and rewarding for a team effort. I think the greatest challenge for 2023 will be around consumer consumption; Skybury is not shying away from what we are going to produce and our neighbour, Gerard (from Lecker) is doing the same. If you look at any supermarket shelf, and how much space the fruit takes compared to the overall fruit section, it's still really tiny. So, we have to grow our real estate space and look to get ourselves to numbers like bananas or avocados are - that's our long-term aim and we are looking forward to the challenge."
Far North Queensland has experienced some recent wet weather and after an increase in production throughout December, Skybury is expecting a "big impact" on volumes in February.
"The figures are well above our average for the month of December, and it came in a 2–3-week period," Ms MacLaughlin said. "So, we have had quite significant erosion on the farm. But we are pleased to see that the sugar content in the fruit is holding very well. Despite the challenges of mother nature, the fruit is still tasting and presenting very well. It's a slight bit smaller than what we'd like it to be, but the less sunshine that you have and the heat, the faster the fruit will ripen on the tree."
Skybury can have up to 8 tonnes per week of Papaya waste on our farms and one of the innovative and sustainable ways the company is expanding its footprint while helping to reduce waste fruit that is unavoidably blemished and cannot be sold in the fresh market is to turn it into a range of products such as jams, sauces, sorbet, chutneys and liqueur.
"It is one of our core focuses and is our way of being sustainable, and helping to manage input costs," Ms MacLaughlin said. "For example, in our barbecue sauce, we have basically swapped out the tomato sauce for papaya as the bulking ingredient, while we have formed a collaboration with FNQ Spirits to make some alcohol products and then there are our cosmetic products using the papaya seed. Skybury is also starting to do a bit of collaborative work around research and development to help the industry with pineapple and passionfruit. It is a bit of an avenue we are working on to cement our position in this space. We are also working on variety trials, and at any one time, we are working on more than a dozen trials. We are looking at how we can help the farming industry more broadly, where there is a shortage of plant material, so we can then help others even with something a bit more niche like jackfruit."
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