By Casey Neill
The future is looking apples at Narre Warren North orchard Montague.
Growing export opportunities are at the core of a $45 million shake-up at Narre Warren North orchard Montague.
A project, which would allow the business to embrace its export potential, could create up to 50 jobs.
General manager Rowan Little hopes the project will start taking shape early next year and be up and running by mid-2019.
Bill Montague started the business in 1948 and is now in his 90s, “but still gets involved in talking about apple varieties”.
Bill’s youngest son Ray is the managing director. His children Scott and Tim are involved, plus Bill’s niece and two nephews.
Aside from the Montagues, the Horswood Road orchard and packing facility employs about 200 people year-round, and extras seasonally.
“Our sales in fruit are around $150-odd million a year and really focus on apples, pears and stone fruit,” Rowan said.
Montague has four other orchards around Victoria and Tasmania. About 80 per cent of its sales are of fruit that partners have grown.
“This is the main site we use for distribution offshore,” he said.
“We send apples to Europe, to Asia. We send stone fruit to Asia and the Middle East.
“That’s the part of the business that we’re most enthusiastic about growing.
“We see our opportunity to really grow to the next dimension to be through the export market.
“One of the challenges Australia has as an exporter is that the way we pack fruit has been built around supplying the domestic market.
“Packing and movement of fruit to the port and then out of Australia is the big area where we have to do a lot of work.”
The Montague facilities as they stand are very adequate for the domestic market, Rowan said, “but they’re not going to give us the efficiencies we need to go into the export market”.
Builders came in and recommended starting from scratch with a customised site. Just updating the existing facilities wouldn’t get the efficiencies either.
Montague got the opportunity to buy the horse agistment next door. A touted ring road extension to improve transport routes sealed the deal.
Lysterfield Park borders the new land so Montague spoke to Parks Victoria about its plans.
“The plan is for a cafe, bike rental, and to also develop a pick-your-own orchard,” Rowan said.
“We do a lot of work on introducing new varieties into the Australian market.
“We’re going to use this as an opportunity to test with consumers some of the new material that we have the opportunity to commercialise and have some real-time data back from them about what they prefer.”
Montague drew up a masterplan and received a planning permit earlier this year.
“Now we’re at the point of trying to raise finance for the project,” Rowan said.
“It will double our apple packing here, and stone fruit.
“It will drop 10 to 15 per cent off the cost of that distribution.
“This existing site will be converted into bulk storage, basically.”
Visitors will be able to test new apple varieties before they reach the shelves.
Montague has relationships with breeders all over the world.
“Typically from identifying a variety in a breeders test block and getting it to market is a 10-year process,” Rowan said.
“Right now we’re testing about eight new apple varieties and about 40 new stone fruit varieties.
“We go through about a five-year testing phase, to see if it can be grown in Australian conditions.
“The most successful introduction of a new variety was jazz.
“It’s 10 years this year since we planted the first of that. We’ve been selling it for six years.”
Rowan said Montague invested in a breeding program in France a couple of years ago that’s producing red-fleshed apples.
“We’re pretty excited about them,” he said.
“There’s more acidity to them, like a Granny Smith.
“The colour and flavour are a radical departure from standard apples.
“After five years of investment, we had the first two apples in Australia this year.
“We’ve also just tested another apple this season in the local Pakenham, Gippsland area, from Japan – Shinano Gold.
“We’re growing that with a couple of growers in the Pakenham-Drouin area.
“The innovation is just coming very quickly now.”