Making the desert bloom at Wydgee

25 Nov, 1999 12:52 AM
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STONEFRUIT harvesting is in full flight at Wydgee station, 55 kilometres north of Paynes Find. So far this year, XX peaches, XX nectarines and XX apricots have been picked from the 12 hectare plot, destined for the Perth market. It is the sixth (??) crop of fruit from the orchard in the desert, which will be completed in XX weeks by XX. The peaches from the station, fondly known as Wydgee peaches, have become particularly reknown in the Perth market for their large size and sweet, juicy taste. The fruit from Wydgee station, marketed as Kia Fruit, has built up a reputation in recent years and is coveted by connoisseurs. But Bill Moses and his family never intended to get into the horticulture business. Like most Murchison pastoralists, they were, and still are, devout woolgrowers. However in 1992, when there was no sign of an upturn in the wool market, the Moses were forced to look at income alternatives. The decision was taken to put some finance into the station, with the assistance of Mr Moses brother, Eric, so long as it had nothing to do with wool production. They examined alternative uses for the 170,000-hectare lease. The abundance of underground water created a natural opportunity for irrigated cultivation. "We had plenty of water and it was not too saline, about 770 parts per million, well within the guidelines for use in stonefruit irrigation," Mr Moses said. "It is a fairly harsh environment for stonefruit, but this ground will grow anything, so long as we have water." With the stonefruit production starting to take off at Carnarvon, the Moses were inspired by the opportunity to turn off early season fruit and capture a premium price. "Wydgee fruit comes after Carnarvon in early September, but 10 days before Gingin in late October," Mr Moses said. "But none of this would have happened if we had not found a market where we got a premium price." Another of the attractions of planting peaches was that, in only 18 months, the trees would start bearing fruit for sale. In the days well before Native Title became an issue, 12ha of land was cleared near the Canning Hill on the Great Northern Highway and 3200 peach trees were planted. Seven years of trial and error later, the orchard has become an integrated part of the Wydgee operation. There are now 2500 peach trees, 800 nectarine trees and 280 apricot trees and a few experimental plum trees. (???) "A lot of people thought we were very silly," Mr Moses said. "We had a headache with wool, why would we get ahead with something else if there was no potential there." The orchard is basically run the same as any other orchard in WA. "I do not think there is much we do differently, except maybe we do not have to spray as often (for pests) because there is no orchard close by," Mr Moses said. The diversification into stonefruit has worked so well that last year half the station's turnover came from the orchard, while the other half came from wool and sheep sales. Few modifications were made to the Moses sheep operation, other than shifting shearing from November to January-February. "You need to diversify into something that works in with the station management process," Mr Moses said. "So, in our case, the orchard becomes the winter program, along with fencing and improvements to (sheep) infrastructure." While the summers are very dry and hot, winter can be wet and extremely cold at Wydgee station. It is the cold that makes the area suitable for growing stonefruit, which require a certain period of time under 8°C (???) for the fruit to mature properly. When the Moses started the orchard, they tested the temperature range on the station to assess the chill factor in order to choose the most suitable varieties. With a chill unit reading of between 150-350 chill units (days below a certain temperature), low chill varieties were selected, including...???Florda Star, Florida Gold and Early Grand peaches, Sunwright and Sunraycer nectarines and a few apricot varieties. Because low chill varieties were chosen, they were required to be thinned regularly to ensure the size of the fruit was adequate. "Size is everything," Mr Moses said. "We can achieve that, but only because we manage it well, we could not get the size if we did not do it right." One of the greatest management problems for the Moses is attracting fruit pickers to the station. "I think it's the isolation," Mr Moses said. "We use a lot of backpackers to pick, they are our best labour force. "But the downside is that they do not necessarily come back and they lack experience." As the concentration on the orchard has intensified, the Moses have reduced their sheep numbers. They still have about 12,000 sheep and turn off between 200 and 250 bales of 21.5 micron wool each year. Like most pastoralists, the Moses are going out of wether production and reducing their flock to a ewe nucleus with a concentration on turning off ram lambs. "That is where the money is at the moment, on the meat side of the operation," Mr Moses said. But that is not all the diversification on Wydgee station. A fencing program has started (??) already to run 1500 feral goat breeding nannies behind wire, to improve the quality and contiguity of harvesting the animals. For the Moses, diversification has become a way of life that will provide them with a more secure future. "There is no starting in a small way," Mr Moses said. "There is a lot of potential there, but we are still learning."

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