The results of a postal ballot released yesterday show that while 73 per cent of growers with 72 per cent of the export crop voted to support adopting a Horticultural Export Authority model for the Australian market, just 37 per cent of exporters with 43 per cent of the fruit backed the proposal.
It is a bitter blow to growers, many of whom are under severe financial pressure after three consecutive seasons of losses and who saw the newly opened and highly priced Australian market as providing them with some relief.
A frustrated Pipfruit NZ chairman Ian Palmer said the low level of support from exporters was "hugely disappointing" and meant it was now unlikely that Agriculture Minister David Carter would approve HEA-controlled exports to Australia.
"It means that individual exporters are not prepared to put the interests of the industry before their own interests.
"That’s a sad indictment and it’s not a way for the industry to go forward.
"Exporters who work in this region who didn’t support this will have some explaining to do."
Carter this morning also voiced disappointment at the vote, saying he had yet to make a decision but "it doesn’t suggest to me that the industry has that unified focus that I think it needs if it is to maximise the opportunity in Australia".
Worried that unregulated trading would lead to New Zealand not getting the most out of the Australian market after a long fight for access, Pipfruit NZ lobbied for a team approach whereby exporters would have to be licensed and adhere to rules governing fruit quality, joint promotions and information sharing.
A bid to fast-track the proposal through Parliament was blocked last month by the ACT Party after a campaign opposing the move by some Hawke’s Bay exporters and growers, but Pipfruit NZ was confident of getting sufficient industry support from the postal vote for a sympathetic government to pass amending legislation next year.
Palmer said the lack of exporter support was surprising given that all the major ones were part of the group which drafted the proposal, "so clearly a significant exporter has changed their mind".
He did not know who it was or why they no longer supported an HEA, but growers would soon work it out and they deserved an explanation.
"I think it’s very disappointing that some exporters are not supporting growers who are the ones with everything at stake. They are the people with most of the investment and the risk and they have clearly spoken."
Nelson growers and those exporters based in the region had indicated they overwhelmingly supported the plan, Palmer said.
The industry would now need to discuss what to do next, but one option being touted was the formation of a company to export all apples to Australia, he said. All exporters would sign up to it and it would contract packers to pack for the market.
It had a lot of merit, but its main drawback was getting everyone to sign up, he said.
John McCliskie, chairman of Nelson exporter and grower Heartland Fruit which voted in favour of an HEA, said the result would upset many growers.
"They will look at Australia as a missed opportunity in terms of making it a win-win for New Zealand."
The protocols governing access to Australia were already tough enough without exporters rejecting the chance to work together to get the best returns for growers, he said.
It was disappointing that exporters, many of them commission-based with "no skin in the game", could decide the outcome for growers who had invested heavily in the industry, he said.
"It’s indicative of the behaviour over the last few years of a lot of exporters in the marketplace and it’s no wonder the industry is not performing as well as it should."
New Zealand’s biggest apple exporter, Turners and Growers, revealed last night it had voted against the HEA.
Chief executive Jeff Wesley said the company had been a big supporter of a first draft of the plan to use HEA licensing but then Pipfruit NZ had watered it down. "We viewed it as pointless being a part of it." The principal purpose of the HEA was to uphold grading standards and to prevent "shady characters" exporting low quality fruit that would damage the market.
"But the Australians are now making exporting so difficult they are virtually inspecting 100 per cent of the apples.