With Moora Citrus, WA farmer Sue Middleton is bringing quality homegrown fruit to local markets and looking to supply growing Asian demand for safe premium produce.
Middleton and her husband Michael Brennan run a diversified farm in Western Australia’s wheat belt, growing grains, oaten hay, pork – and more recently, oranges and mandarins. Their latest venture is Moora Citrus, a 210-hectare orchard in the new horticultural area near Dandaragan.
Middleton, who grew up on a beef and cropping farm in Queensland, “got bitten by the rural development bug” early, came to WA aged 29 to speak at a conference and “and never quite got home”, meeting her husband eight months into a contract running a capacity-building program for WA rural communities.
In 1998, recognising that around 60 percent of the fresh citrus consumed by Western Australians was imported – but that they’d prefer local produce if it was comparable in quality and price – Middleton and Brennan decided to expand their operation into orange and mandarin orchards.
They secured a water license for their underground supply, prepared a section of land for orchards – improving the soil with waste products from the piggery – and, in 2005, began planting. After trialling new technology and pending better broadband coverage, they settled for a mix of new technology and homegrown practicality.
“We started with a fully electronic irrigating and fertigation [water and fertiliser] system that you could monitor from a computer or phone, but we were working with guys in Israel and servicing the system was hard,” recalls Middleton. “We’ll struggle to do anything too digitally dependent unless coverage technology improves. So we converted this system and use more practical knowledge now. We hired a farmer who’s really good at growing citrus and he’s made a huge difference to our capacity.
“We’re keen on alternative energy sources but haven’t found the right answer yet – though we’ll be doing more in this space: it costs a lot for us to pump our water up from depth.”
As they ironed out the production system and waited for the trees to mature, Middleton connected with wholesalers, retailers and marketers as well as neighbouring growers in the Dandaragan area – a region she calls “the future food bowl for WA thanks to its good water supply”. In 2010, she won the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award, with its attendant networking and business opportunities.
In the spring of 2011, Middleton and Brennan expanded their orchard to 210 hectares, capable of yielding 13,000 tonnes of fruit. The same year, regional growers got a substantial boost from an agreement with Woolworths to sell WA-only citrus from June to September.
“We [growers] have to work together,” she says. “It’s a real supply-chain success story. We want them to choose our fruit over interstate fruit. They can pack for half the price we can in WA, but the WA fruit is going to move faster because it’s fresh and it’s local.”
The challenge of the past two years has been improving fruit quality and yield to meet market demand. “We’ve been busy getting our trees to produce to their capacity,” Middleton explains. “This will be our first year of real volumes, where we’ll have any impact on the market.”
“We’ve also been working on trying to maximise our grade 1 fruit, as with the smaller trees, you get more blemish,” she says. “We’re working on improving our pack-outs [and] on more cost-effective ways to sell seconds through bagging. It’s still too early to know what’s going to work best.
Now, with production hitting its straps, Middleton’s looking to expand into overseas markets. “At this point, all our produce is being sold locally – it’s the best-priced market, still, by far. But we will bring on volumes into the local market that mean we must export. So we're looking at various markets with partners in the supply chain,” she says.
“Demand for WA citrus is not high because it’s not known. We’re looking for markets interstate producers haven’t targeted. We have nothing set up yet, but the reputation of Australian citrus is good – any food from Australia is regarded as ‘clean and green’ – so we’ll use that as a selling point.
As our dollar falls in value, Australian produce becomes more attractive to overseas buyers. And as Asian consumers grow wealthier, demand for safe, high-quality food is increasing throughout the region.
“We are relatively high-cost producers in the world market but we have really good standards of food production,” Middleton says. “So you either go for the ‘commodity niche’ – supplying niche markets that are willing to pay for certain values in their food, or you get together with other producers and tackle a market with greater volumes.
“That means you need to be good at communicating your production values and good at wrapping that up into a brand; be transparent about your production processes; be prepared to really welcome the customer of the future into your business – and resource that. Or you need to be good at working with other producers in supply chains that are integrated, where you might not have much control but you’re part of a cooperative effort that does the brand management, etcetera, for you. And you resource that.
“What you choose, I think, depends on what skills you have in the family business – or your willingness to buy that talent in – and on how you want your life to look.”
For more information about Moora Citrus, visit www.mooracitrus.com.au
When Sue Middleton’s not actively farming, she manages a rural community development consultancy and sits on the board of several agricultural and regional development organisations. Currently, she’s deputy chair of the WA Regional Development Trust and COAG Reform Council and chair of the Institute for Agrifood Security at Curtin University. Middleton was awarded the Centenary Medal for Service to Regional Australia in 2002, and 2010 RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year award.