The fruit growing industry is complex, and ever changing. The history, particularly of Tasmania’s apple industry, is fascinating. Mark Salter, as a 4th Generation orchardist, dishes some surprising insights and his story is a long and winding road. The marketing behind the fruit we buy is complex, and growing it commercially? Not nearly as easy as one would think.
And did you know that in spite of its origins as part of the mainland, Australia’s Tasmania, has no iodine in the soil? And therein lies the genesis of some rather peculiar folklore!
But you will have to read on to access that, and it definitely made me chuckle. In Mark’s words:
“Gosh, where do I start? I grew up as a 4th generation apple orchardist from the Huon Valley. As most country kids in those days did, I left school at a fairly early age and joined my dad on the farm. We were mainly growing apples and pears, and ran a small herd of cattle to keep the grass down. We were a reasonably large enterprise, and vertically integrated, the way we worked. We grew the product, cool stored it, and in the early days, marketed it as well. Originally it was marketed by a company – Childton Thompson – which was one of the largest apple marketing companies in Australia.
“From school, I started work back home in 1974 and helped manage the cool stores, the packing sheds, and my two brothers, Philip and Tim came to work on the farm as well. And it worked for us, we had our individual roles and I took on the marketing of the fruit at a later stage. We had an export licence too, which was fairly unique in those days, as we were selling into South East Asia.
“The apple industry has had its ups and downs, and there was a peak body between 1993 – 2005, the Tasmanian Apple and Pear Growers’ Association, or TAPGA (there weren’t berries being focused on then), and we were concentrating on export to mainland Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong.
“We were growing Fuji apples, which my father helped to bring out from Japan originally and began growing years before. TAPGA was a peak industry body and was funded by the growers. So I was elected on to the executive, and on to the sub-committee to access the Japanese market for Fuji Apples. This included 5 trips to Japan negotiating with Japanese growers, government and so forth. Our apples had to be fumigated because we had some pests and diseases, which they don’t. We ended up getting apples in there after 10 years, developing a protocol for that market, but we were one of the very few countries in the world to get access into the Japanese market – mainly because we didn’t have fruit fly.
“I did a stint as president of the organisation, when at the time New Zealand wanted to export apples to Australia, and we fought that, though under big protocols, because it had to be on a biosecurity basis – they had Fire Blight – a terrible disease which Australia is also one of the few places in the world that doesn’t have it.
“The apple industry was enormous early on – and trucks used to line up to have their fruit checked before they could load onto the ships waiting at Hobart Wharf and it was a system that all fruit had to be inspected – and that was fraught with issues. When the UK joined the European Common Union that made a huge difference to our biggest market. It crashed. The government had to actually fund growers to pull trees out and restructure their orchards! It was horrendous.
“Our orchardists had to look for other markets when suddenly, the Asian market made sense for Tasmania – as It costs the same amount to ship to South East Asia as it does to ship to Queensland. India was also a particulalty big market for red delicious at the time.
“Now, there’s very little export of apples, because of competition from many other countries, as apples can be stored in cool stores over a 12 month period, which negated our opportunities to send to markets overseas. I think there’s less than 30 growers here now, whereas there used to be over 700 growers at one stage. Which is why some are diversifying, making cider and planting other fruits such as cherries. Hanson’s and Reid Fruits are examples and both are now two of the largest cherry growers and leaving apple growing behind. Berries are another fruit that has expanded in Tasmania and the industry in the last 12 months has grown 40%.
Our family decided that we would sell the family farm in 2005, when a lot of growers decided to rationalise their roles in the industry at the time. Farmers either sold or diversified into cherries or other fruits.
“At that stage, both Prudence and myself had already started up a venture working with a Japanese firm growing strawberries for their off season. This was in Cambridge, where Prudence and I moved to after selling our orchards down the Huon.
“That firm was Ichigo, an Australian company owned by New Agri Network from Japan, and it had the support of our government, being driven by demand and supporting our export industry. Of course it had to be premium – and something I guess people find surprising, is that it’s a very hard market to be in sustainably.
“We began in 2000, and Ichigo set up a demonstration green house, trialled a variety of strawberries which looked good. The greenhouses were 6400 metres – huge production units – then Ichigo changed the variety to an older variety, Toyonoka that was grown for sweetness and principally for the confectionary market – cakes etc. But it was a small berry, prone to pests and diseases and extremely hard to grow profitably. Even the Japanese were struggling here to grow it.
“The investment was huge, and they paid a premium, but the whole cost of production was prohibitive in the end. After 3 years of trying to make it work, we had to make a choice – up the price hugely or exit. They agreed to $40 a kg, and we made money the first year, but unfortunately the Japanese company folded, so we started to look around for other ways to use the greenhouses. We tried some other strawberry varieties, including Adina, which worked, was a beautiful big fruit, but it wasn’t a Japanese variety, so ultimately, it didn’t gain acceptance, and we had to walk away from strawberry exports.
“We were still supplying the local market with fruit, both here and on the mainland. It was a premium brand, selling well in Tasmania, but still lacked acceptance on the mainland. At that point, we thought that raspberries might do well and trialled them. I won a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to the USA, the UK and Europe to study Raspberry hydroponic production.
“We found that Belgium was deeply experienced in this new way of growing, while here back in Tasmania, raspberries were still grown in the ground, and needed the chill hours outside during the winter to develop the fruit buds. We loved Bruges, by the way, and had an incredible experience spending some time there. We met the best grower in Belgium which produces the most fruit in the world and they were killing it with technique and we gawped at the wall of fruit that their bushes produced. We worked with them from 2005 – 2008 to develop hydroponic production. Our labels of Raspberry Fresh and Strawberry Fresh looked beautiful and we sold our fruit at a premium, but it still was hard going.
“Back home, we worked out a way of growing the raspberry canes in pots outside, got their chill hours in a cool store (which we had used for the apples), then put them into the greenhouse. We stacked them in the bins in the cool room, one on top of the other, and after a period in coolstore we placed them into the green house and grew them successfully, getting extraordinarily high prices – $50 kg or more. But it took a long time to fine tune. It’s all about getting that production right – it’s very expensive, even with high yield. We were one of the first to trial this technique in Australia, and when you look at how raspberries are grown now, it’s this.
“But of course, we had a tornado, which completely demolished one of our greenhouses, and so, we pivoted. We began to grow the fruit in tunnels, which is simpler, with open ends but they still have a sophisticated watering system, with nutrients in the water and the plants sit in a coca coir substate like a potting mix, designed for fruit production, with no nutrients, it’s just a base. We put the nutrients in through irrigation, so we can be more precise, and a lot of the vegetables grown in the soil are not nutrient rich any more because it’s really difficult for the farmers to nail it.
“In 2008, I left farming and found myself managing the Grove Research station for a short period, which was interesting. Tim Reid exited the apple industry in the Huon, but had become one of the biggest cherry orchardists in the Derwent Valley. It was a huge enterprise and I co-managed that for quite a few years, and then went to the mainland to work for John Forsythe (from Dymocks’) who had bought a huge macadamia orchard in northern New South Wales. I ended up in Stuart’s Point on the NSW north coast, one of the most liveable places in Australia.
“Prudence had to stay in Tasmania with her mum being ill, and we nearly bought a place in South West Rocks, but I ended up coming back to Tassie to set up Pinãta Farms’ Raspberry business – from a greenfield paddock, which had no water, and we had to build an irrigation system, as well as all the infrastructure, the packing sheds, the tunnels and the nursery to grow the plants. The berry varieties were from the UK company Berry World.
“Pinãta Farms are an Australian company run by two brothers from Caboolture, who also grow mangoes and pineapples in a big way, and they have a number of farms around Australia.
“I sort of retired a couple of years ago, and got a call from Peter Cornish, of Fruit Growers Tasmania. They’re a fruit growers’ peak industry body and support the growers on a whole raft of issues. We had a chat and here I am now – a Berry Industry Development Officer. It’s a national role really, that’s funded by Berries Australia, all the berry growing states have an IDO, and I’m the Tasmanian representative, so I get to put back from a knowledge point of view. I’m one of the few IDOs who has the growing background, the others tend to come from primary industry or University, so it’s good that I can add to that mix. I’m the only male in a team of six, which is interesting, but good to see.”
And Mark had to go??, and all I could think of, was, ‘Wow! That’s a big life!’ And if you’re wondering about the Iodine story that we began with, then here it is: Because of the lack of iodine in the soil, Tasmanians developed goitres, huge growths on their necks, which gave rise to the ‘two-headed Tasmanian’ myth. (The goitre removal left big scars, which fed the myth even more). Kids were eventually fed iodine tablets in school, and iodised salt is recommended.
Thank you Mark, for your story, and continuing to share your knowledge and experience. It’s precious.