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Riverland citrus growers see future in fruit

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IT was a seven-year drought that nearly knocked the South Australian Riverlands off the map. For the ordinary person it meant shorter showers and watering the garden at night. For fruit growers like Impi Citrus, it must have looked like the end of the world.

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But it didn't have to be. The Cant family of Impi took the crisis and turned it in to an opportunity. They saw it as a time for drastic action and fundamentally changed the way their business worked.

They invested, reinvented and innovated – and they've emerged as a stronger and smarter operation for their trouble.

When the drought hit, the Cant family tore up nearly half of their 25,000-tree orchard. Water was scarce and getting scarcer. Rather than dwindle, says Ben Cant, the family decided to take a punt.

“We pushed the old trees out and planted younger trees knowing the water usage would be minimal, hoping like hell the drought had broken by the time the trees were mature,” Ben says.

The family had to sell part of their land to pay for the plantings, but at least the new trees would take a slimmer portion of their slim water allowance.

“It was a family decision, but yeah, it was a punt. I think every day in horticulture is a punt really.”

The new plantings were a new type of citrus for the family too; rather than the typical Valencia oranges, they took a gamble on the late maturing Navel variety.

“We noticed our sales would always increase later – so we thought, 'why are we growing in that early timeslot? Why are we producing oranges that are going to juice for a minimal return?'”

It was the first of many changes for Impi. Ben has been leading a dramatic change in the company's packing and shipping operations that.

“Our old packhouse was the original on the property. There were all sorts of issues, like getting staff there, unreliable power, issues with biosecurity on our own orchard when we process other people's fruit.”

The Cants invested millions in a new facility half an hour from Renmark. New sorting technology has increased their uptake and efficiency. Shipping lanes that pass right by the facility means they have direct access to the domestic market.

“We have a much more direct relationship with the retailer now. We saw the cultural shift in the Australian retail market,” Ben says, referencing the rise of Coles and Woolworths, “A lot of packers were hesitant about working with them. We figured you might as well be at the front of the queue.”

By cutting out the middleman, Impi has become a primary supplier to the big chains. Their supply chain has drastically shortened too, meaning the fruit arrives days earlier, fresher than it ever did before.

Having filled their niche in the domestic market, Ben says the Cant family are setting their sights abroad for most of their future expansion.

“Citrus is principally export driven. We export more than half of what we grow in Australia. It's sort of like the wine industry.”

Their approach to the international market is a balanced one. Impi have spread their risk in the past – only exporting enough to keep their foot in their door.

“It means that, from a business perspective, should things turn south in Japan or Korea or China due to agri-politics, we're supplying several different markets and our business doesn't come to a standstill.”

“We have Navel oranges that go for export, valencia oranges for juice, then mandarins and grapefruit for the domestic market. We cross supply all of those, but the bulk of the supply is targeted to that particular market.”

“China is huge, we've barely scratched the surface. Japan is our largest export market now. With the free trade agreement in to Korea just about to be signed off – in ten years time that's another market.”

Impi, it seems, has an eye on securing the future.

“It really is a case of how many trees can we get in the ground. We want to be able to better look after the customers we already have. With our exports – the sky is the limit really.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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