People buy blood oranges for the deep red hue of the citrus flesh, but the challenge for growers is that you can’t judge this by the peel. “People pay for blood oranges when they’re bloody and they don’t like paying for them when they’re anaemic and don’t have that colour,” says Len Mancini, director at Red Belly Citrus. “We don’t have problem with people complaining about the quality of our fruit, but we want to offer more consistent product.”
Red Belly Citrus, a family business based in Griffith in the Riverina, is also hoping to introduce a super-premium range that is “practically black on the inside”. This could be exported to Asian markets where gifts of fruit are traditional, as well as serving high-end restaurants and gourmet providores in Australia. Mancini is hoping the answer lies in near-infrared technology from a New Zealand-based company called Taste Tech. Red Belly Citrus has started a trial at Taste Tech’s facilities in Shepparton, Victoria to test fruit throughout this year’s season, which started a few weeks ago.
The machine can identify the internal colour of fruit without damaging the peel, but the question is how sensitive it is. Currently Mancini is confident that the machine would reject fruit without any colour – this would be destined for the juice factory . However, he says it remains to be seen whether the machines will successfully distinguish between moderately pigmented fruit and highly pigmented fruit. If the trial is successful then Red Belly Citrus would buy or lease the machines and install them on the packing line in Griffith.
The company is also working with Taste Tech to measure the sugar and acid ratio, not just the internal pigments. This is important for the US market because of import protocols. “The biggest risk we face is sending over a container of oranges early in the season and having them rejected, and sent back to Australia, and then needing to find a home for them,” Mancini says. “We’ve seen blood oranges re-arrive – not ours, but we saw it happen to an exporter in the Mildura region four years ago, and that would be the last thing we need.”
Currently Red Belly Citrus is producing 750 tonnes of blood oranges and currently 50 per cent of that is going to the export market, Mancini says. The US accounts for 90 per cent of that, with Mancini saying the market has “automatically lapped it up” because there is a lot of Italian influence. But Asia is emerging as a growth market as well. In the past year Red Belly Citrus has started supplying China and South Korea. In China the main customer is a particular supermarket chain that only stocks imported items, reflecting the wave of Chinese sentiment against homegrown produce because of ongoing food safety issues.
Unfortunately Mancini says Red Belly Citrus is locked out of the lucrative Jpanese market because the free trade agreement does not refer to citrus or even oranges as a whole, but names individual varieties. For example, Navel oranges, Valencia oranges and mandarins are included but not blood oranges. “The biggest and most profitable market for gift fruit is unavailable to us, it’s really quite sad,” Mancini says. “Particularly because it’s straight after the free trade agreement was negotiated and we still don’t have access to that market.” Mancini says market prices for blood oranges are around $3 a kilogram, ranging down to 5c a kilogram for juice-grade fruit and seconds. However, he thinks the super-premium range could attract up to $4 or even $5 a kilogram with a guarantee to meet a certain quality.
Citrus farming is a family tradition for cousins Len and Vito Mancini (pictured), as well as Len’s brother Anthony Mancini.
Red Belly Citrus was founded by Len Mancini, along with his brother Anthony and cousin Vito. Len and Vito are business directors, while Anthony is the farm manager. The trio’s grandparents emigrated from Italy and settled in Griffith, where they planted citrus orchards, mostly Valencia and Navel oranges. Two generations on, Mancini’s cousin had wound up with their grandfather’s farm, and growing oranges had become a commoditised, unprofitable business.