From cot­ton to grapes

Grapes help turn the ta­bles for unique op­er­a­tion in Queens­land’s Cen­tral High­lands

The Northern Star - Northern New South Wales Rural Weekly - - News - Fiona Sheean news@ru­ral­weekly.com

NEVILLE and Chris Crook planted grapes on their farm at Emer­ald, Queens­land, at a time when there was only 25ha of vines in the area.

Now there is more than 1300ha and the Cen­tral High­lands re­gion sup­plies 15 per cent of the na­tional ta­ble grape crop, worth more than $60 mil­lion.

The Crooks orig­i­nally grew cot­ton on their 24ha prop­erty, but were look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive to add value with­out the need for too much land.

They planted 4ha of vines, in­clud­ing Menindee Seed­less and Flame Seed­less va­ri­eties.

“It is a silty-loam over sandy-loam soil here so it is well drained and bet­ter suited to hor­ti­cul­ture,” Neville said.

The Cen­tral High­lands sub­trop­i­cal cli­mate and ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion al­lows pro­duc­ers to sup­ply early sea­son fresh pro­duce to do­mes­tic mar­kets at times that at­tract pre­mium pric­ing.

“We are at the most north­ern point for grape grow­ing – any fur­ther north from here they grow win­ter crops,” Neville said.

“The rea­son for hav­ing grapes here – prior to Amer­i­can im­ports – Emer­ald grapes were the first ta­ble grapes on the mar­ket af­ter win­ter.”

Chris said in the early years clients wanted grapes in time for the Mel­bourne Cup.

“There was a big temp­ta­tion price wise to go early when you could get $20/kg in­stead of $3/kg only three weeks later, but it led to qual­ity is­sues,” she said.

“The Amer­i­can im­ports have helped in a way be­cause they’ve filled that win­ter gap.”

PICK OF THE BUNCH

MENINDEE Seed­less ac­counts for 50 per cent of the Crooks’ vine­yard, but it is not con­sis­tent in yield, rang­ing from 1kg/vine to 9kg.

“Over time our man­age­ment has im­proved, but you still get mas­sive vari­a­tions so there has to be a pre­mium, oth­er­wise you make a loss,” Neville said.

They are only a small pro­ducer and sell through the whole­sale mar­kets, aim­ing for higher qual­ity and niche mar­kets in Mel­bourne and Sydney.

“We have six to eight pick­ers and put two pal­lets a day into a mar­ket, whereas our neigh­bour has 250 pick­ers and sends off six B-dou­ble loads a day,” Chris said.

The Crooks pick each vine ev­ery three to five days, tak­ing the ripe fruit off so the green fruit ripens faster.

They can pick ev­ery vine up to eight times.

They also use a salt so­lu­tion to test for ripeness.

Pick­ers drop a grape into the so­lu­tion and if it is ripe and ready for pick­ing it will drop to the bot­tom.

Each box is iden­ti­fied in the field so they know which day and which row it came from, and who picked it.

Dur­ing the grow­ing phase, a crew is sent through the vines to man­u­ally trim ev­ery bunch so they grow big­ger, more uni­form grapes.

They also pluck leaves away from the fruit so they don’t rub and make marks.

“We are smaller so we have that qual­ity con­trol,” Chris said.

Neville said their suc­cess in­volved be­ing nim­ble enough to work around the big oper­a­tors.

“Qual­ity is our key and tim­ing is ev­ery­thing to vi­a­bil­ity,” he said.

“The big guys wouldn’t even dream of pick­ing eight times.”

HAR­VEST RE­WARDS

THE Crooks pro­duce an av­er­age 3kg/vine of Menindee and 7kg/vine of Flame Seed­less, equat­ing to 30 tonne a year over both va­ri­eties.

As is the case with all walks of farm­ing life, the weather plays a cru­cial role in the qual­ity of ta­ble grapes.

“We har­vest in Novem­ber so it can be very dry or hu­mid and tropical with storms,” Neville said.

“If it’s too hu­mid, the grapes can split and soften and you end up with a big mess. The key to shelf life is get­ting the heat out of them so the quicker we pick and get them down to two de­grees, the bet­ter.”

The Crooks are share­hold­ers in a lo­cally de­vel­oped farm robotics com­pany, Swarm Farm Robotics, and are hop­ing to have ro­bots in­te­grated into their grape-grow­ing busi­ness within 6–18 months.

It is en­vis­aged the ro­bots will ini­tially mow grass be­tween rows, spray her­bi­cide un­der vines and ap­ply fruit fly sprays, and even iden­tify dis­eases and treat by spot spray­ing.

“Un­like peo­ple, ro­bots are very good at per­form­ing bor­ing tasks so if we ask a ro­bot to do some­thing, we know it will be done prop­erly,” Neville said.

“It will be so much more ef­fi­cient and cost ef­fec­tive when we have ro­bots do­ing a lot of this work.”

It will also free up time for Chris and Neville, who also works off-farm in a lo­cal agribusi­ness-con­sul­tancy firm, to main­tain their other farm­ing en­ter­prises, which in­clude wagyu cat­tle, grass hay pro­duc­tion and pro­duc­ing a but­ter­fly pea crop for an in­sec­ti­cide prod­uct.

TOP CROP

BUT­TER­FLY pea was orig­i­nally in­tro­duced to Aus­tralia a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago as a for­age crop.

A few years ago it was tri­alled in Cen­tral Queens­land as a way of putting ni­tro­gen back into the soil in crop­ping ro­ta­tions. Re­searchers dis­cov­ered the plant was able to kill in­sect pests by pro­duc­ing cy­clatide. The cy­clatide is now be­ing ex­tracted out of the but­ter­fly pea and turned into an in­sec­ti­cide sold as Sero-x.

“Cur­rently we are the sole source of but­ter­fly pea for Sero-x pro­duc­tion,” Neville said.

The Crooks have 3ha of but­ter­fly pea. It is cut like hay, chaffed and then pro­cessed to ex­tract the cy­clatide.

It is a legume and grows sim­i­lar to lucerne so it is har­vested three or four times a year when it gets to the right ma­tu­rity level.

“It’s a very good re­turn, but only a small mar­ket,” Neville said.

The Crooks run 100 pure­bred wagyu breed­ers on 320ha of mainly leased land and sell feeder steers to the feed­lot at the 350–400kg mark.

They an­a­lyse car­cass data for mar­bling scores and cull ac­cord­ing to re­sults.

“We run the wagyu be­cause they are a higher value niche mar­ket pro­duc­ing more dol­lars per hectare,” Chris said.

“We have the cli­mate and the soil, but not the area to have the scale like other co­horts in Queens­land, so to get the re­turns per hectare on our smaller acreage we have to be in­ten­sive.”

PHO­TOS: FIONA SHEEAN

Neville and Chris Crook run wagyu cat­tle on their mixed farm near Emer­ald. They grow ta­ble grapes and a but­ter­fly pea crop. DY­NAMIC DUO: Neville and Chris Crook grow ta­ble grapes, a but­ter­fly pea crop and wagyu cat­tle on their farm near Emer­ald,...

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