After 10 years of political wrangling amid various stakeholders together with a relocation budget blowout, the Melbourne Wholesale Fruit Vegetable and Flower Market has moved premises to its new site in Epping, Victoria. Around 3,000 small businesses are involved in the markets, including 600 growers.
By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL
Melbourne Wholesale Fruit Vegetable and Flower Market (Melbourne Market) is Victoria’s wholesale fruit, vegetable and cut flower trading centre, one of six central fresh produce markets in Australia.
Operating from its new purpose-built facility on a 60-hectare site at Epping, the market provides the critical link between growers, wholesalers, retailers and the fresh produce supply chain. Melbourne Market moved to its current location off Cooper St in Epping at the end of August 2015.
More than 4,000 businesses use the market as a base, buying and selling fresh produce in the early hours of the morning for distribution across Victoria and Australia.
Over 1,800 individual fruit and vegetable buyers, representing independent greengrocers, supermarkets, restaurants and food processors, source their produce direct from the market. Many more receive deliveries and consignments from the market.
Up to 120,000 square metres of warehousing space provides for the integration of supply chain logistics within the market itself, and is the largest warehousing precinct of any central market in Australia.
The fruit and vegetable market has two sections: the trading floor and the buyers’ walk, which contains 156 permanent stores that are leased by store holders. Store holders display and store produce in these stores.
Victoria produces around 40% of the national market for cut flowers, so the flower market is also an important place of trade for fresh flower growers.
The flower market was designed to maintain cut flowers in optimum condition for sale throughout Australia and for export. Around 60 stand holders, occupying 140 stands, supply fresh flowers to over 700 floristry businesses.
The Melbourne Market is regarded as fundamental to Australia’s fresh produce industry.
A wholesale market has been in existence almost as long as the city of Melbourne, originally being located in the centre of the city. The first official fruit and vegetable market was the Western Market—established in December 1841, only six years after the Port Phillip settlement—on a site bounded by Market, Collins and William Streets, and Flinders Lane. The Western Market traded for 90 years. Starting off as a general market, it gradually evolved into a wholesale market.
As the city grew, the Eastern Market at Bourke and Exhibition Streets opened as a general market in 1847, gradually attracting market gardeners and fruit merchants.
Extra facilities were built and 224 stands were let to market gardeners, fruit agents and dealers. In the early 1860s, it was estimated that more than 1,000 growers used the market at one time during the year.
In time, both Eastern and Western Market businesses were largely absorbed into the Queen Victoria Market which became the hub for Victoria’s wholesale and retail fruit and vegetable industry.
By the 1960s, due to the growth in the industry and changes in transport and refrigeration requirements, the Queen Victoria site could no longer accommodate both wholesale and retail functions and a decision was made to move wholesale trading to Footscray Road, West Melbourne (previously a swamp area) and build a new market to meet the needs of the industry.
The Queen Victoria Market continued to develop as a retail market and over the years has become one of Melbourne’s famous retail icons.
From 1842 to 1978, the City of Melbourne controlled and managed all the markets. In 1978 the Wholesale Market passed into the control of a Market Trust. In 1993, the Melbourne Market Authority was established to take over from the Trust and to manage the Footscray Road site. The Melbourne Market Authority comprises a five member Board appointed by the Governor-in-Council under the provisions of the Melbourne Market Authority Act 1977. The Board is supported by a complement of staff who manage the site on a daily basis.
In 2004, the Victorian Government announced plans to construct a new market at Epping, and, following extensive consultation, the market opened on 31 August 2015. The move to Epping is another significant step in the rich history of Melbourne’s wholesale market.
The market’s recent relocation to its new site has not been without its challenges.
The move followed more than 10 years of political wrangling among market traders, including growers and wholesalers, the Melbourne Market Authority and the Victorian government. Along the way, the cost of the move for the state government ballooned from an initial assessment of about $300 million to closer to $670 million. There have also been several class-action lawsuits.
AUSVEG, the peak body representing vegetable growers across Australia, said the relocation to Epping still presented some problems to growers because of transport concerns, however, many growers said they were generally satisfied with the move.
“While there were some teething issues when the new Epping site first opened, vegetable growers are working with the Melbourne Market Authority to ensure tenants and buyers are able to conduct business as smoothly as possible,” said AUSVEG Victoria state manager Kurt Hermann who added that the market’s location was still cause for concern for some growers, as curfews on heavy vehicles through the north-eastern Melbourne suburbs of Watsonia and Heidelberg cause problems.
“No matter where the market is located, you cannot please every grower, given that fruit and vegetables are grown all across Victoria,” he said.
“That being said, the facilities at the Epping location are state-of-the-art and the overall responses to the new market we have received have been positive. However, the curfew that has been implemented on Lower Plenty Road and Rosanna Road has caused a great deal of inconvenience for growers based at the markets.”
One of the biggest challenges for some traders has been dealing with the uncertainty over the market’s relocation for the past 10 years.
According to Grant Nichol, wholesale business manager of hydroponic tomato grower and wholesaler Flavorite, the relocation meant uncertainty for many traders.
“You know how your business trades in the current environment, but to be put in a new market with new neighbours and everything like that is difficult,” Mr Nichol said.
“There are no guarantees in business in any case, but it’s really an educated guess as to what layout is going to work the best and flow the best as far as stock receivables and what have you.”
Financial struggles loomed large, especially for some smaller traders.
“For a lot of the smaller business, it would have been a struggle, financially,” he said.
“A lot of the infrastructure they have is all paid off, but all of a sudden, they are in a position where they are going to a new market where there’s uncertainty of trade and what have you, and having to finance an extensive amount of money as far as fitting out of the store and things like upgrading IT.
“It’s not the sort of thing people do every year—relocate their business and have to go through the negotiations with the builders, contracts and things like that. It can be pretty daunting,” Mr Nichol said.
“On the whole, however, Epping works quite well as a location.”
For successive Labor and Liberal-led Victorian governments since the relocation was first announced in 2005 by Labor premier Steve Bracks, the issue proved a bone of contention.
The majority of market tenants were against the move and many fought bitterly to prevent it from going ahead.
In 2011, wholesaler representative group Fresh State began a class action against the state government and proposed the building of an alternative, privately funded market in the south-eastern suburb of Dandenong.
Getting on with business
According to Fresh State president Shane Schnitzler, since that time the situation has improved with wholesalers keen to work with the Melbourne Market Authority and get on with business.
“I would go as far as to say most people I speak to, and including my own business, are very satisfied with the facility. It’s hard to argue; it’s a very modern, fantastic, streamlined facility. Everything works,” Mr Schnitzler said.
One of the most noticeable things about the new site is its size. The former site was around 35 hectares and much less modern.
“It’s a different environment than we’re used to and when you introduce change into a business there are a lot of businesses that don’t grab that change. When you’re used to the hustle and bustle of fruit and vegetables everywhere and all of a sudden you look up there and it’s a bit of a ghost town, you know, it’s hard to adapt,” he said.
Melbourne Market Authority chief executive Mark Maskiellsaid: ”I think, on the whole, now that the tenants are here and using the market, some of the feedback I get is ‘why didn’t we do this earlier?’ It’s been an interesting change in the dynamics,” he said.
“I have been really impressed with the way the tenants have embraced the change and embraced the new environment. You couldn’t do it without it. If they were rebelling against what we were trying to achieve, it would’ve been a whole lot harder.”
Melbourne Market Authority chairman Steve McArthur said Asian delegations had visited the market, including operators of wholesale and retail produce markets in Asia who were interested in importing high-quality fruit and vegetables.
“Melbourne (market) is 15 minutes away from the Tullamarine airport, it’s a 24-hour curfew-free airport, and the opportunity for export from here is very exciting.”
Mr McArthur said there was an opportunity for Melbourne to become a hub for the air-freight of horticultural exports from the entire country and exports would be key in increasing the market’s annual trade, which is currently worth $1.5 to $2 billion,” Mr MacArthur said.
“There is an enormous opportunity there (in Asia) because there is a rapidly growing community of middle-class people in South-East Asia and in China and they are gaining wealth very quickly.
“They want good, clean, safe, healthy food and Victoria can produce that and we can offer an export opportunity for producers from all over Australia here.” Ω
PH&G February 2016 / Issue 164