TAKE YOUR PICK
Enjoy the sweet sensation of choosing your own fruit
They’re bigger, juicier, tastier, cheaper and a lot more fun to obtain than standing in a supermarket queue. Today is the start of Sydney’s season to pick your own citrus fruit. And the place to go is also one of our most scenic spots — beside the Hawkesbury River, 15 minutes from Wisemans Ferry.
Seventh-generation grower Mark Watkins — the family heritage on the farm dates back to 1867— runs one of the three pick-your-own properties in the Laughtondale/Lower Hawkesbury area, and his trees are laden with fruit that’s ready to pick.
These Sydney fruit growers turned to the pick-your-own market after being overrun by interstate competition and unable to meet supermarket demands for high-volume, blemish-free, uniform-sized fruit for low returns.
Faced with having to close down, they opened their orchards to the public in the past six to 12 years instead — and the crowds are coming.
It’s been so popular that they are adding more trees and new facilities; Watkins is building a picnic shelter, toilets and a food and drink stand.
His 2100 mandarin trees take up 10ha of his 34ha property, which is in a hidden valley surrounded on all sides by mountains and 1km down a dirt track from the main road.
Here, you can roam the rows of trees, inhale healthy air by the lungful, and choose your fruit to the sound of bellbirds rather than supermarket announcements.
You are given a bucket to fill, and when you return to put it into bags, the 5-7kg you have gathered will cost you just $10.
“We’d have had to give it up if it wasn’t for pick-yourown,” says Watkins.
“We started about six years ago. The first year there were only about five or six cars but last year they filled up the car park.
“The kids love it. When they are done, the parents are dragging the kids home. The kids don’t want to go home.”
To assist pickers, Watkins prunes his trees so most fruit is at an easy picking height.
Watkins says you should pick the fruit on the outside of the tree and cut the stalk with the snips he provides; if you pull the fruit, it tears the skin. “We’ve got a full crop this year so we will go through to September,” he says.
“This year is the first year we’ve had a full crop since we’ve had people coming.” There are two types of mandarins on his property: imperials, which are ripe now, and hicksons, which are slightly larger, mostly seedless and should be ready by the second week of August.
W Watkins says he uses an organic spray and no pesticides, and while some may have the odd mark they are fine to eat.
“We just want them to taste really, really good. We get a few blemishes but they are safe for you.”
The mandarins are so popular that Watkins has competition from the local wildlife.
“We’ve got the bugs, the birds and the wallabies — everything has a feed.
“You see the wallabies — they get the mandarins, they peel it with their front paws and eat it, just like a kid.”
And he gets the occasional over-eager human, too, in a process he calls “thieve your own”.
“Some turn up in their Audis and put the mandarins down their pants,” he says.
“They have the car but don’t want to pay for four mandarins.”
The farm has also attracted 21-year-old French backpackers Manon Libaros and Romain Fabre, who are working there as part of a two-year trip.
“We have a car and we are going around Australia,” Libaros says. The duo are from Bordeaux, where they are used to grapevines but not mandarins.
“Not the mandarins — they are in Spain,” she says.
Up the road, Watkins’ parents run a pick-your-own mandarin orchard on the riverside, while at Ford’s Farm Nicky Alexander has pickyour-own mandarins, oranges, lemons, cumquats and limes. She also has her own homemade honey, jam and chutney for sale.
Alexander says the June long weekend (next weekend) is the busiest time, and visitors will have plenty to do as there are two fairs on in Wisemans Ferry that weekend.
If you want to pick oranges only, head to Schofields Orchard at Richmond on Sundays.
Lyn Schofield says they have been on the site for 50 years, with navels picking now and washingtons by mid-June.
“There used to be citrus d down the whole street. Now w we are the only ones left.”
Mason Fallon (left) and Elijah Wilkie, both 10, having fun at the Watkins Family Farm Orchard.
Backpackers Romain Fabre and Manon Libarosb (above)bove) and (right) orchard owner Mark Watkins at Watkins Family Farm. Pictures: Bob Barker.