Fresh ideas for family business

29 May, 2013 02:00 AM
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THERE isn't a lot of similarity between dryland farming in Merredin and irrigated horticulture in Kununurra.

In fact, the two forms of agriculture are a world apart.

One relies on whatever rainfall happens to fall out of the sky and the other has water on tap, literally.

But one young family have managed to successfully swap the wide open spaces of the Eastern Wheatbelt for an intensive operation in Kununurra.

This is Matthew and Melanie Gray's third harvest in the Kimberley and together they seem to make the perfect team.

Both have backgrounds in agriculture, Matt hails from a family farm in Merredin and Mel grew up on a similar horticultural property in Kununurra.

Matt has a trade in heavy duty mechanics and Mel studied marketing and finance at university and they both clearly have a love for the land.

But despite their combined talents they admitted it had been a very steep learning curve.

Matt said getting used to the intensity of this type of farming had been a challenge.

"It really is incomparable to broadacre farming in Merredin," he said.

"Here you have to make every hectare count.

"Everything revolves around water and harvesting, which is the same as at home, but on a much smaller and far more intense scale."

Matt and Mel certainly have their hands full.

They plant half of their 350-hectare property to watermelons and three different varieties of pumpkins and the other half is used to produce chia, sorghum and chickpeas.

They manage a staff of eight to 12 backpackers during the picking and Mel is in charge of marketing the produce and the logistics of getting it to market on time.

In addition to all of that, they have a five-month-old son Lucas.

Although it was sometimes all a bit of a balancing act, Mel said it was enjoyable to be able to grow a product that was so easy to market.

"All the produce we grow is good for you and I have found it easy to market such a healthy product," she said.

"Because of where we are, sometimes it can be an issue getting it to market, but we have found the better quality it is when we send it down the easier it is to sell."

With that in mind, Mel said it was important for them to only send top-grade produce.

"We only pick and pack the first-grade watermelons and pumpkins, the rest we leave in the paddock," she said.

"If you pack two grades we have found the second grade downgrades the first and as it is so expensive to pick, it is sometimes better for us economically to leave it out there."

The Grays send their produce to Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

With such vast distances to cover they were always conscious of quality and getting the produce to market as fresh as possible.

Mel said ideally they wanted to be picking in the morning, packing in the afternoon and trucking that night.

"It is a three-day trip to some of the markets and to keep that quality up it needs to go as soon as possible," she said.

"In the peak season we can sometimes have up to four trucks going a day."

Being so far from the marketplace, Mel said it was necessary to deal with agents who would then sell on to Coles, Woolworths and other retailers.

She said she had always wanted the ability to have a direct relationship with consumers but they had limited options due to the isolation.

Picking normally started in mid to late May and continued through until October.

Matt said it was important to utilise the long seasons due to price fluctuations of the produce.

"It is all down to supply and demand and we extend the picking season as long as possible to try to jag the high prices," he said.

"It is a pretty volatile market and like all other farmers we are price takers.

"We put a lot of cost in the ground but we have no idea what the prices are going to be when it comes out the other end.

"Sometimes the prices are great but other times we have left watermelons in the paddock because they weren't even worth picking.

"It's important to use the longer seasons to spread the risk."

The grain harvest usually goes from August to October and was done using contract harvesters.

Matt and Mel had been growing chia since they started and grew it on contract to The Chia Company.

They said it had been exciting to be able to be involved in producing such a new crop.

It wasn't always part of the plan to move to Kununurra for either of the Grays.

Matt had previously worked in the region as a diesel mechanic for a number of years but had moved back down south while Mel was finishing university.

They both came back to the Kimberley for a 12-month trial to do something different and decide where they wanted to be.

During that year Matt worked for the farmer who was leasing their current property off Mel's parents.

"Then Mel's parents said that the lease was coming up and asked us to take it on," Matt said.

"It was a little bit sooner than we would have liked but when you are given an opportunity like that you have to take it and just try to keep up."

Matt and Mel were able to continue to work under the previous manager for a few more years where they tried to learn as much as they could about the business.

They admitted it had been a tough learning curve but said they were lucky enough to have the support of Mel's family and the agricultural community.

"We were also blessed with a few years of good prices which were able to cover some of our mistakes," Matt said.

"But there is always something new happening and although it really isn't as easy as turning on a tap, we have the water to be able to trial new things and keep innovative.

"The farming community up here is also very close and we have been lucky to have the support of other farmers in the region while we find our feet."

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