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Scholar profile: Tom Eastlake

Scholar profile: Tom Eastlake

Beyond the farm gate: Focus on quality from orchard to store is key to increasing demand for cherries

In the face of an often saturated Australian cherry market, a focus on post-harvest handling, transport and packaging will be key to increasing domestic consumption rates, according to a report released by 2015 Nuffield Scholar and NSW cherry grower Tom Eastlake.

Tom Eastlake, from Young in New South Wales, received a Nuffield Scholarship supported by Hort Innovation, as part of the across industry program with matching funds from the Australian Government.

With domestic cherry production increasing by 166 per cent between 2008 and 2016, the report explores opportunities for Australian growers to increase demand by consistently delivering a more appealing in-store product for consumers.

Mr Eastlake was motivated to undertake his Nuffield research as a way of giving back to the Australian cherry industry, which had offered him support during a battle with cancer in 2013.

“I was given overwhelming support and strength from my friends within the industry during my illness. This kindness and generosity motivated me to undertake this research to try and find ways we can improve and expand the performance of the cherry industry,” Mr Eastlake said.

Recognising that cherries fall into the category of ‘impulse buy’ for the majority of Australian consumers, the report outlines that getting cherries to retailers in as near-perfect condition as possible is crucial to maintaining and growing the consumer base.

“The attitude that a grower’s responsibility ends at the farm gate needs to change,” he said.

“As growers, we should be continuously looking for improvements to our post-harvest processes. We need to be diligent in ensuring that the level of care we put into growing the fruit is reflected the whole way through the supply chain.”

His report explores various stages of the cherry supply chain across North America, Asia, South America and Europe, finding that while the Australian industry broadly ranks among the better cherry producing nations of the world, there are clear incremental improvements to be made.

“A grower could consistently produce perfect cherries, but that hard work can all be undone by poor handling, packing and transport practices. There is some exciting new picking and packing equipment and technology coming out of the United States which provides some clear lessons for the Australian market,” he said.

Mr Eastlake’s report looks at a Washington based company, Monson Fruit, which has installed a 44 lane sorting and grading machine that uses high-definition cameras and computerised defect grading to ensure only the best product gets through. The machine also incorporates punnet, carton and bag packing of the fruit.

“This is a high tech piece of equipment, and while it sits at the more extreme end of the spectrum, it shows what is possible in terms of best practice fruit handling,” he said.

The crucial role of packaging and presentation in winning and retaining customers is also explored in the report.

Mr Eastlake acknowledges the challenges that cherries present to retailers, as they are traditionally packaged in large boxes that customers can rummage through, squashing and damaging fruit in the process.

“It’s been an ongoing problem for retailers, but there are ways around it. David Harris, of Harris Farm Markets, highlighted to me that even though there are packaging and presentation challenges, if the consumer wants cherries then you need to be innovative in dealing with the problem,” he said.

To highlight the benefits from innovative packaging solutions, the report uses the presentation of premium cherries in Asian markets as a case study. In South East Asia, ‘gift packs’ of cherries are a major driver of consumption and their luxurious packaging drives acceptance of their high price points.

“At 7-11 in Thailand, when management sought to add imported USA cherries to their fresh produce division, they found that sale on a price per kilogram basis was difficult as most consumers perceived the price per kilogram as being too high,” he said.

“They transitioned to selling cherries in 200 gram cups with a fixed price per unit and the demand took off. Thailand has seen 200 per cent growth in domestic consumption of cherries in only three years.

“Innovative approaches across the supply chain are needed, and growers need to partner with the right people who will respect the produce they provide and work to ensure that it reaches the consumer in the best possible state.

“The diligence and commitment of Thai retailers in marketing cherries is profound, and sets a clear example of what can be achieved here in Australia through incremental change.”

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