Sir Don a leader in diversification

27 Jul, 1999 10:56 PM
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HISTORY will remember West Australian farmer Sir Don Eckersley as the agri-politician knighted for helping to unite a string of farming organisations to form the National Farmers Federation in 1979, among a hoard of other political achievements. Yet in his hometown of Harvey in the state's south, his family is noted for something far more practical: as former dairy farmers who took a gamble on planting Red Globe table grapes and inspired an industry. The family's flourishing two-hectare Red Globe vineyard was south-west WA's first commercial table grape vineyard. It was established a decade ago in an area landlocked by dairy farming traditions and surprisingly little time elapsed before the variety spilled over on to neighbouring farms. The grapes returned up to $64,000/ha as a niche crop before the production boom hit in 1994-1995, filling domestic markets, and it is estimated there are now 135 Red Globe growers in southern WA. Though the variety fetches only 60 per cent of that premium price today, Sir Don says it remains a promising high value crop with strong export potential. "There would be more than 60 growers in our area now, all growing a few hectares as a diversification from their dairy or grazing incomes for the high returns," he said. "Dairying earns around $800/ha compared to horticulture, which is between $20,000 and $50,000, depending on how well it's run and the net prices. "Unlike dairying, you have certain risks with horticulture; for example two years ago, two thirds of our crop was destroyed by a cyclone just one week before harvest < 100mm of rain in 48 hours. It's a risk you take." The transition to horticulture was motivated by his son Tim's horticultural interests and in order to give his wife, Marj, a glimmer of hope they would one day retire. However, at 76, he is still showing farmers the way to maximise their resources and grow the industry. "I'd worked out of Canberra for nine years when I made the commitment to the NFF along with trips to New Zealand on behalf of the milk production industry < I had a guilty conscience," he confessed. "My wife kept the dairy going; although we had a labourer and manager, it was still hard on Marj and the family." With no interest in the out-of-vogue 150-cow, low-line zig-zag dairy, Tim pursued an agricultural science departmental career with a degree in horticulture < keeping a close eye on the progress of a Red Globe grape trial that a university colleague was researching at a Perth research station. In 1988, the 405ha dairy farm was sold, retaining 158ha to plant 6ha of citrus in addition to the vineyard for an out-of-season income and a 150ha bluegum plantation as a long-term investment. Their farm's rich river-flat loam over clay soil and dry summer climate was ideally suited for citrus and grape production and little soil preparation was required, other than rotary hoeing of pastures. Elevated beds for the vines were mounded every 2.5m to prevent water logging in winter. The plantings, grafted to Swartzman and Ramsay rootstock, were sourced directly from the Perth research station and fixed to an A-frame trellis to create a full canopy, bird netted enclosure at a cost of $50,000/ha. Late season Imperial, Honey Murcott and Ellendale mandarins and Late Lane navels were planted to target the higher price, end of season domestic market. As for the bluegums, a 25-year contract lease with WA Department of Conservation and Land Management meant very little upkeep. "They planted the trees and take care of them and pay me to do the firebreaks, plus an annuity of a little over $100/ha a year," Sir Don said. "On top of that we get a percentage of the harvest returns < the project is a steady little worker for us." Adapting the dairy farm equipment to the new enterprise was not as simple. The hay cutting and carting equipment was well suited to clearing between rows and hauling the produce, however the large turning radius of the 148hp Massey Ferguson tractor did not suit the vineyard's tight 2.5 metre rows. Taking pride of place is a New Holland Boomer series tractor < the latest in a series of high performance tractors for small farming enterprises. "It's made it so much easier as I can turn out of one row and directly into the one adjacent, turning in about a 4m radius," Sir Don said. "I'm also getting more accurate spray cover on the vines as the hydrostatic transmission allows me to set the cruise speed to keep the distribution rate constant." The Boomer's 4WD has also helped overcome traction problems experienced during heavy winter rain periods. "We get all of our 1000ml rainfall in about 5-6 months, which means we can't get down a lot of rows because they're too wet, but with the Boomer we have no problem." Heavy summer rains also took a toll on their first grape harvest, causing the breakdown of half the plantings made up of the two seedless varieties, Thompson and Flame. More than 80mm of rain fell in one hit, prompting them to graft all the vines to Red Globe. "The seedless grapes were also less productive, yielding around 15-18kg per vine as against 25-30kg per vine Red Globe," Sir Don said. "Although the margins appear good for seedless, there is a much greater risk < the returns weren't enough to warrant growing them. "With the Red Globes, we'll only have splitting problems in about two out of 10 years." Currently, their total grape production, averaging 14t/ha, is split between domestic and export trade and marketed through a local grower collective, the South West Fruit Company. The collective has enabled the group of six small growers to bypass the WA central wholesale markets and sell direct to supermarkets and importers, saving 14pc otherwise deducted by agents from their annual returns. In 1994, the collective gained ISO 9002 Quality Assurance accreditation, a first for a WA farm commodity group. "It's a tedious business and a hell of a lot of book keeping, but you have to have the evidence that a trace back system is in place," Sir Don said. The move has become a significant component of their export marketing campaign < the QA Blue Ribbon quality message adorning their export boxes and gaining approval from Asian importers. The South West Fruit Company also exports to Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Thailand. Gaining the accreditation was also timely to secure their domestic market interests, as supermarkets, making up more than 80pc of the market, will no longer accept produce from non-certified growers from this November. "You have to move with the times all the time and make sure you don't fall behind," Sir Don said. "To make anything a success, you have to have the right tools for the job < the same goes for farming."

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