The future of Australian-made orange juice is in the hands of Asian countries like Japan.
Sales have soared in Western countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but overall demand has been falling for more than a decade.
Jeff Knispel, who runs South Australian company Nippy’s, bucked the trend, with a $10 million investment in cold-pressed and cold-filled juices.
“From crushing the cold oranges, cold filling the bottle, refrigerating the ocean freight, then storing it cool in the destination country in their warehouse…then retailing the product in dairy cabinets,” he said.
The Juice Journey
The industrialization of agriculture a century ago transformed orange juice from a luxury item to a staple.
Mr Knispel said US soldiers fighting in the Pacific during World War II boosted demand for Australian-made fruit juices.
“It may not have been a particularly good product. I think it was boiled and made into a long-lasting product that was put in steel cans,” he said.
As the post-war Western population grew, so did the thirst for orange juice.
During this boom period, juice concentrate became a more economical product, until the federal government removed import tariffs.
“The fresh juice companies survived…but the people making concentrates, which gobbled up a lot of surplus oranges, collapsed,” Mr Knispel said.
Then, in recent years, concerns over sugar content and the emergence of other beverages like bottled water and soft drinks have crushed the juice market share.
Last year’s Australian Citrus Annual Report forecast national annual orange juice consumption of 32,000 megatons. About half of this amount is imported, mainly from Brazil.
Truckloads of dumped navel oranges on the east coast have recently grabbed headlines, but Mr Knispel said the cold and wet conditions had also led to the rejection of fruit in South Australia’s Riverland.
This has been another challenge, amid shipping delays, rising input prices and dealing with fruit fly outbreaks.
“I guess 30 to 40 semi-trailer loads of [navel oranges] were thrown away. We probably gave up 10%,” he said.
Mr Knispel said that while rejected navel oranges could be used for juice, Valencia oranges were preferred.
“The rule of thumb with navels is that if you’re not growing squeeze fruit, you’re pretty much wasting your time because squeezed navels are next to nothing,” he said.
“You can make beautiful navel juice if you drink it the same day or the next day, but within a few days… it has a habit of taking on a bitter grapefruit taste.”
From kitchen to factory
Finding ways to survive in a changing market is a theme that continues to define Nippy’s story.
Second-generation grower Mr Knispel said his father started a business in the 1930s selling Riverland fruit in markets in east Adelaide.
But that changed in the 1960s when the state government established a Citrus Council, which introduced legislation to control the industry.
“One of the regulations was that no one should pack oranges in the metropolitan area,” Knispel said.
Losing access to a large population base on their doorstep and moving operations to the 300-person town of Moorook left the family with a surplus of juice.
Mr Knispel said he and his brother got up every morning at 4 a.m. with their mother to make orange juice, first by hand and then with small electric juicers.
After selling juice to neighbors, friends and the local market, their kitchen operation grew enough that they rented a small factory with more sophisticated machinery.
Today, Nippy’s has three facilities: a chilled juice operation in Adelaide, a fruit packing plant in Waikerie and the original plant in Moorook, which manufactures long life products.
Mr Knispel said his latest venture into longer-lasting chilled juices appeared to be paying off, with strong demand from local supermarkets, repeat orders for export and sales up 10% in the world. during this exercise.
Tokyo buyer Reiko Tsuji said her company had been buying chilled juice from Nippy’s for two years.
“We believe that [the] Costs [juice] market is approaching and premium juices with good shelf life will sell much better,” she said.
“We would like to develop our own market…and Australia has great potential.”