The size of the canned, dried and fresh stone fruit industries has fluctuated over the decades with changing economic and market outlooks. Significant weather and biological factors have also influenced planting and production levels.
From settlement to the late 1800s, production was predominately for fresh consumption. During the first half of the 20th century, canning and dried fruits expanded, became dominant sectors of South Australia’s stone fruit industry, and major export earners. The decline of canning and dried fruits post 1970 has left fresh fruit as the major sector of the industry.
Unfortunately there is no consistent set of statistical data that enables tracking the ebb and flow of South Australia’s peach, nectarine, apricot, plum and cherry industries over the past 100 years. Following are some comments and snapshot statistics about the size and importance of individual stone fruit industries at critical points in their development.
In 1945, SA’s peach industry had plantings of 140,000 trees. With growth of the canning peach industry, plantings expanded to 469,000 trees in 1964. This was dramatically influenced by the record 1956 River Murray floods.
Prior to 1956, South Australia only produced about 10% of Australia’s canned fruits, mainly Moorpark apricots. The epic 1956 River Murray flood destroyed many peach orchards in Victoria. Over half of the 8,190 acres under peaches in the Goulbourn Valley, Cobram, Horsham and the Victorian Murray Valley Irrigation Areas were lost. Major losses were also experienced in the NSW Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. One third of apricot trees in these districts also died. Rapid expansion of Riverland canning peach plantings occurred post 1956 resulting in a surge in production in 1962 as new orchards began bearing.
By the 1980s, River Murray peach plantings were in decline, down to 230,310 trees in 1981 (or 875 ha), and falling to 189,000 trees in 1989. Subsequently, peach plantings have been relatively static with industry now focussed on fresh production.
Steady growth of dried apricot production occurred through the 1920s and 1930s, with the industry having 325,000 trees by 1940. Expansion of the canning apricot industry post WW2 saw plantings reach 460,000 trees in 1959.
Apricot production declined rapidly in unirrigated Barossa Valley orchards as irrigated production in the Riverland expanded. Between 1948 and 1956, unirrigated Barossa plantings of stone fruit (mainly apricots) declined by 13.5% and have now totally disappeared. This was driven by the impact of apricot gummosis and declining competitiveness of unirrigated production.
In 1981, River Murray apricot plantings were 375,480 trees or 1,431 ha. Today, apricot production is almost totally focussed on fresh market production.
Australian production of prunes rose from 1,000t in the 1920s to a peak of 5,000t in the 1960s. Over the period 1940 to the mid 1960s, SA’s plum plantings reduced from 205,000 trees to 44,000 trees as prune demand declined. In 1981, River Murray plum plantings were 58,360 trees or 195 ha. Plum plantings expanded through the mid 1990s as export markets for fresh plums expanded (150,000 trees in 1997) – see Fresh Stone Fruit Exports.
From 1971 to 1987, SA’s cherry plantings were relatively static at approximately 50,000 trees (200 ha). Development of the high density “Lenswood Orchard System” offered cherry growers improved productivity, fruit quality and profitability. As a result, the state’s cherry plantings doubled to 106,400 trees (approximately 425 ha) by 1993, and then to 173,800 trees (approximately 695 ha) in 1997. In 2011, South Australia had 590 ha of cherries, or about 21% of Australia’s plantings (Australian Cherry Strategic Investment Plan 2012-2017).