At New Zealand miniature apple grower Rockit, the apple harvest is underway with a brand new packhouse.
Mark O’Donnell who joined the company as CEO in early January talks about the apple season and the growth of volumes and markets at Rockit.
“The 2021 season is looking fantastic. We’ve enjoyed very good growing conditions this year which, combined with significant development and improvements on our orchards, has set us up for what looks like a very successful season. The team has started harvesting and we’ve noted that this season looks to be an exceptional one for colour,” said Mark.
“Volume is up 65% on 2020 and the quality is excellent. We’re expecting great flavour and sweetness, with dry matter content and brix very close to what we saw last season.”
Rockit is on a steep growth trajectory, with footholds in some big consumer markets and plans to access more regions this year. Rockit demand has always exceeded supply, and with the sizable increase in volume, Mark thinks it’s safe to assume 2021 will be their biggest season yet.
Rockit apples are exported to Greater China and Vietnam as well as other markets across South East Asia which remain priority export territories, with the Middle East also growing rapidly. Rockit was recently launched into India and it is already seeing good reach into the premium produce category there too.
According to Mark all markets are growing rapidly. “There is huge demand for convenient and reliable unprocessed fresh fruit, and with Covid-19 amplifying the requirement for food safety and secure supply chain management, sales continue to soar.”
“Finding receptive markets for our premium product is always top of mind. This year we plan to extend our reach into the sub-continent, with increased distribution through India and a launch into Sri Lanka. We have also recently appointed a market manager for the MENA region, so we’re expecting to see greater expansion here.
Although they were originally developed in New Zealand, Rockit apples are now grown in 10 countries globally (USA, Australia. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, South Africa, UK and at home in New Zealand). This enables a year-round supply to key global markets and helps mitigate any risk.
The Rockit has traditionally been packed in the iconic plastic tube which is recyclable, but changes are underway for packing alternatives, with cardboard packaging already on some markets.
“It’s important to us that Rockit apples are grown, harvested, and packaged in ways that are as sustainable as possible. We’re soon to officially open a new state of the art packhouse in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, one that will help us improve efficiencies and manage environmental impacts.
"As part of that project, we’ve invested in new equipment to enable us to trial some packaging alternatives. We’ll need to embark on consumer testing before these alternatives hit shelves, but we’re making headway, and quickly. We’ve already switched to cardboard packaging in markets where this was viable – New Zealand, Australia, and Europe – but we know we have more to do.
"Eliminating single use plastics from our packaging is our long term goal, and we feel like a positive step to begin that journey is very close.”
As the new CEO, Mark has faced challenges in a particularly difficult year where New Zealand is facing a critical shortage of workers in the horticultural industry.
“This season has certainly been a challenging one for picking, with labour shortages hitting the entire sector hard. We’ve had to think on our feet and launch marketing campaigns that reach new audiences, and while these have certainly helped to attract new workers to pick and pack with Rockit,
"it’s certainly kept us focussed. I am really proud of our team who with a mixture of technology, hard work, outstanding horticultural knowledge and perseverance have pulled together to make sure we get the best result possible for our growers so we can get as much Rockit as we can to our customers.
"Standing up a new packhouse at the start of a season is no mean feat either and it was great to see fruit coming in to our own cool stores for the first time and then running down our packing lines. The next stage is turning on our automation in a few weeks’ time which will be transformational for the business.
“Exciting times every day here at Rockit!”