Australia is still a newcomer to the commercial pomegranate market, despite a recent worldwide spike in demand for the ancient super-fruit once prized by Roman emperors and Egyptian pharaohs.
The Hall family in Toolamba, near Shepparton, was one of the first Australian fruit growers to dip a toe into the market 15 years ago, when pomegranates were still considered a backyard fruit tree with no commercial potential.
Shane Hall said after years of dealing with Israeli growers on irrigation matters, the family became convinced there was an opportunity to produce pomegranates in Australia.
In 2005 the Halls formed a company, Australian Pomegranate Growers, with Melbourne-based shareholders and three years later took the plunge into commercial production.
“We had no knowledge at all. We’ve gone from absolute zilch knowledge to knowing about as much as anyone in Australia about growing pomegranates now,” Mr Hall said.
The business was recently acquired by SPC as part of a $3 million push into the pomegranate market.
SPC chief executive Robert Giles described the purchase as ‘‘the first of quite a few acquisitions in the coming future’’ and would accelerate the growth of SPC.
Australian Pomegranate Growers is now the largest pomegranate producer in Australia, with 80 000 trees at Coomboona near Shepparton producing about 1500 tonnes going to restaurants, supermarkets and general markets up the eastern seaboard of Australia.
However, the growth curve has not been without its challenges.
“It doesn’t grow like a tree, it’s more of a bush. As much as you try to manipulate it to get it do what you want, it seems to do its own thing,” Mr Hall said.
“It can get fruit fly, and the fruit is difficult to handle too. When you harvest it can crack, and after harvest it doesn’t keep too long.
“It can also flower very late — the frosts here can burn the green tissue so the flowers come late and you don’t get the growing time to get the size. There’s a few challenges.”
Mr Hall also said a mysterious disease had emerged over the past decade, which sees trees yellow and die — sometimes with devastating impact for Australian pomegranate crops.
“It’s wiped out a lot of crops and it’s been very difficult to put our finger on the cause of it.
“We have been affected, but not to the same extent as other areas.
“We think maybe the climate in this area is protecting us. We’re not sure why, but it seems where it’s hotter they’ve had worse results.”
Mr Hall said visiting scientists had seen it elsewhere in the world but not to the same extent as in Australia.
“It’s a very strange phenomenon. It’s a tough tree, but there’s something about it that also makes it fragile.”
Although the disease is so far unnamed and inexplicable, he has his own theory of the cause.
“Sometimes in commercial production you fertilise, you irrigate and you prune and all that attention I think at times makes the tree more vulnerable.
“When it’s sitting out there on roadside just growing away, it’ll grow for years and nothing will happen to it.
“It’s not a standard fruit. It’s an interesting plant and it’s got us in a bit — there’s a bit of romance about the whole thing.”
Mr Giles said pomegranates had a well-established market internationally, including the Middle East, India and the United States.
“It’s a super-food, so people are looking for those products that are better for you,” he said.
Mr Giles said SPC expected to see pomegranate products become more mainstream, anticipating it would become the new super-food — just as the avocado was in the late 1960s to early 1970s.
He said the company would expand its fruit portfolio to include a range of new pomegranate-based products.
Australian Pomegranate Growers chief executive Gal Shapir said he was proud to have played a part in introducing the Australian community to the benefits of pomegranates.
“The PomLife brand has found a new home at SPC where it can thrive and reach new heights,” he said.
“APG will continue to develop our orchard and support the iconic SPC business in their future endeavours in the pomegranate space and beyond.”
APG will continue to own the orchard and sell fresh fruit, with SPC purchasing the off-grade produce for processing.