By Christine Webster
For the past 40 years, Riverland citrus company, P.Costi and Sons has been contributing to South Australia’s economy through horticulture and boosting the region’s population by employing locals and overseas workers.
Its Venus Citrus brand of fruit has become highly sought after globally, especially in Asia and among Australian consumers.
The company’s founder, the late Peter Costi, who died in 1995, labelled his oranges Venus Citrus after his homeland, the Island of Venus in Cyprus.
And it seems as if Venus, the goddess of love, beauty and inspiration, has shone down on the Loxton-based company, contributing to its direction and ability to survive some tough years, including the drought during 2009 to 2012.
Peter Costi moved to SA’s Riverland in 1973 from Sydney and soon established himself as a citrus grower and packer, selling his own fruit at a stand at the Melbourne market.
He set up P. Costi and Sons in 1977.
Managing director and marketing manager for Venus Citrus Helen Aggeletos, who has worked for the company her father established for 30 years, attributes hard work and commitment to its achievements.
The third-generation family business exports produce it sources from 38 Riverland citrus growers to more than 20 countries around the world.
The beautifully packaged Venus Citrus oranges and mandarins can also be found in supermarkets in most Australian capital cities.
The company employs 75 people at the peak of the citrus season and 60% of these staff are from the Riverland.
The rest are backpackers, a group of Pacific Islanders employed under the Federal Government’s seasonal workers’ scheme and eight staff from overseas, who have been sponsored to work in Australia by P. Costi and Sons.
These sponsored workers come from countries such as France, Belgium, Italy, Japan and South Korea and initially came to the Riverland as backpackers.
After four years, they will be able to apply for permanent residency to make Loxton home.
Helen says the Riverland company has had to take some risks to remain viable even when faced with a drought in 2009.
“At the start of the drought, we were in a more comfortable cash flow position, so we actually gave bonuses to growers in addition to our normal payments to help them buy water,” she says.
Helen says when the weather conditions and future of the citrus industry improved in 2014, her family took the brave step of redeveloping the company.
“We were on our knees at the end of those three years as well, we were not immune to the whole situation,” she says.
The transformation included training nine of their key growers to become ecologically certified, developing a new logo and new packaging.
She says to be ecologically certified, growers can only use low toxic chemicals for pest and disease control, and only if there is no biological solution.
It is the first time such ecological methods have been used by citrus growers in Australia.
In November last year, China formally recognised the Riverland as a Pest Free Area for all horticultural produce.
It means SA’s horticultural produce can be shipped directly to China without having to be treated for fruit fly because the state is free of the pest.
Helen says not having to cold sterilise their citrus gives SA citrus growers an economic advantage of $2.80 a carton over their interstate counterparts.
Another record year is expected for the Australian citrus industry and the Chinese market has been a significant contributor, she adds.
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