Tour in­side Pi­nata Farms

Push­ing the edge for new va­ri­eties

The Northern Star - Northern New South Wales Rural Weekly - - WEATHER | INSIDE - JAMES WAGSTAFF [email protected]

NINE mil­lion pineap­ples, 130 mil­lion straw­ber­ries and 13 mil­lion man­goes.

To most peo­ple this sounds like the foun­da­tions of the world’s big­gest fruit salad but for Gavin and Stephen Scurr it’s a proven busi­ness recipe built through hard work, in­no­va­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

The broth­ers, from Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast, run Pi­nata Farms, which has grown from fairly hum­ble be­gin­nings more than 50 years ago to be­come a ma­jor player in the Aus­tralian fresh fruit mar­ket, with pineap­ple, straw­berry and mango op­er­a­tions in seven lo­ca­tions across three states.

It now grows 1010ha of fruit, sup­plies Aus­tralia’s three big­gest su­per­mar­kets — Wool­worths, Coles and Aldi — year round, turns over more than $50 mil­lion a year and em­ploys 70 full-time staff and 300 sea­sonal work­ers.

Pi­nata has also joined forces with in­ter­na­tional part­ners to bring the world’s best-tast­ing fruit to Aus­tralian con­sumers and in a sign of its com­mit­ment to the in­dus­try has teamed with Queens­land’s De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries to run a pineap­ple breed­ing pro­gram, which in­ves­ti­gates the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of up to 20,000 new va­ri­eties each year.

The fu­ture is bright for their mango too and they have un­der­taken a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion project that will see pro­duc­tion grow 100 per cent in the com­ing years.

“We have dou­bled the num­ber of trees we’ve got in pro­duc­tion in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in the past three years,” Gavin said.

“So we are go­ing to see a lot more prod­uct come on line in the next five years.”

Al­ways look­ing for the next big thing, Pi­nata has also in­vested heav­ily in the ex­pand­ing berry space, pur­chas­ing a sheep farm in Tasmania six months ago for con­ver­sion to grow rasp­ber­ries and straw­ber­ries.

“We see our­selves be­com­ing a sig­nif­i­cant player in the pro­duc­tion of rasp­ber­ries within five years,” Gavin said.

A LOT TO LEARN

Pi­nata’s ori­gins date back to 1961 when Gavin and Stephen’s builder grand­fa­ther pur­chased a small farm at Wa­mu­ran, just east of Ca­bool­ture, on which he be­gan grow­ing pineap­ples to off­set a build­ing down­turn in Bris­bane.

The broth­ers joined their fa­ther, Ge­off, in the farm­ing trade in the early 1980s and while they di­ver­si­fied into other crops such as pota­toes, pump­kin, seeded and seed­less water­mel­ons and zuc­chi­nis, when they “couldn’t re­ally find a point of dif­fer­ence” they de­cided to con­cen­trate solely on pineap­ples.

In 1992 they founded Pi­nata as a pineap­ple pack­ing and mar­ket­ing busi­ness us­ing fruit from their own farm as well as from other grow­ers.

Five years later, keen to shore up year-round sup­ply of pineap­ples and with tem­per­a­tures at Wa­mu­ran not con­ducive to grow­ing the fruit over win­ter, the Scurrs pur­chased a farm at Ma­reeba, on the north­ern end of the Ather­ton Table­lands in North Queens­land.

They added to the fruit bas­ket in 2000 when ap­proached by Wool­worths to sup­ply them with straw­ber­ries.

Gavin said they were ini­tially re­luc­tant to get into straw­ber­ries be­cause of their labour in­ten­sity, which re­quired about eight staff per hectare.

“We didn’t race into straw­ber­ries be­cause of that,” Gavin said. “How­ever we did get into them and we’re still here.”

Two years later the Scurrs di­ver­si­fied fur­ther when they pur­chased the Honey Gold mango va­ri­ety, which saw it spread its wings into the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

The bulk of pro­duc­tion is now spread across Pi­nata-owned farms at Wa­mu­ran, Stan­thorpe and Ma­reeba in Queens­land and Humpty Doo, Kather­ine and Mataranka in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

FRUIT LOOP

The 140ha home farm at Wa­mu­ran sits about 52m above sea level in the foothills of the Glass House Moun­tains.

Win­ters are gen­er­ally frost-free and 6.5 mil­lion pineap­ples are planted on raised loam soil beds cre­ated for warmth and drainage.

In ad­di­tion there are about 2.7 mil­lion straw­berry plants grown on 52ha.

The farm re­ceives an av­er­age 1546mm of rain a year, which means there is no great re­quire­ment for ir­ri­gation. To ex­tend its straw­berry sea­son, Pi­nata also has 25ha planted in a cooler cli­mate 990m above sea level on a prop­erty it bought at Ap­plethorpe, near Stan­thorpe in Queens­land’s Gran­ite Belt, in 2013.

Here there’s also about 3.5ha of rasp­berry plant pro­duc­tion and tri­als.

Pi­nata’s Ma­reeba op­er­a­tion now grows 6.5 mil­lion pineap­ple plants on 150ha. In the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, Humpty Doo is home to 3.1 mil­lion pineap­ple plants grown on 52ha and 31,000 mango trees planted in the past three years that will start pro­duc­ing fruit in Oc­to­ber next year. This prop­erty is a joint ven­ture with La­manna Pre­mier Group.

If that’s not enough, south at Kather­ine there are 37,000 mango trees planted over 130ha and 16,000 trees over 70ha at Mataranka, which was de­vel­oped in 2005 to ex­tend Pi­nata’s Top End har­vest.

TASTE TEST

While pineap­ples ruled the roost for years, man­goes are now king at Pi­nata.

The com­pany pur­chased the breed­ers rights to the Honey Gold — a prog­eny of the main Kens­ing­ton Pride mango, boast­ing a unique sweet and tangy flavour and fewer flesh fi­bres, which mean it is not as stringy — in 2002 with the first fruit sent to mar­ket in 2009.

As well as its own or­chards, the com­pany has li­censed 32 grow­ers in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, West­ern Aus­tralia, Queens­land, North­ern NSW and Vic­to­ria (one at Mil­dura and one at Robin­vale) to grow Honey Gold for them.

Be­tween all the farms they have about 190,000 trees over 570ha and send 900,000 trays of man­goes to mar­ket each sea­son.

Man­goes flower dur­ing win­ter, with har­vest kick­ing off at Humpty Doo dur­ing Oc­to­ber and grad­u­ally mov­ing south, with Kather­ine in Novem­ber fol­lowed by Mataranka in late Novem­ber and mid-De­cem­ber. Pick­ing in the Top End is con­ducted at night to en­sure qual­ity and fresh­ness.

Har­vest in Queens­land’s Bur­dekin-Bowen re­gion starts about De­cem­ber 10 and is fin­ished by Christ­mas or new year at the lat­est. Pick­ing at Ma­reeba and Rock­hamp­ton kicks off around Christ­mas and runs un­til late Jan­uary when the Bund­aberg sea­son starts and ex­tends through Feb­ru­ary.

Honey gold yields on av­er­age about 16 tonnes/ha or dou­ble those achieved by kens­ing­ton pride.

CROWN­ING GLORY

Pi­nata is Aus­tralia’s big­gest pineap­ple grower and the only one able to sup­ply prod­uct year round. Pineap­ples are planted as crowns and take two years to grow at Wa­mu­ran and 16 months and 18 months re­spec­tively in the warmer cli­mates of Humpty Doo and Ma­reeba.

The bulk of fruit is planted at Wa­mu­ran be­tween July and Christ­mas and at Ma­reeba be­tween Feb­ru­ary and July.

Pineap­ples are planted in well-drained soil — “they don’t like wet feet” — on raised beds at a rate of about 60,000 plants per hectare.

“They are a Bromeli­aceae, which is a type of cac­tus, so they don’t need a lot of rain, they just need reg­u­lar rain,” Gavin said.

He said the ideal grow­ing tem­per­a­tures for pineap­ples were days of 30C max­i­mums and 20C overnight min­i­mums.

Most pineap­ple plants pro­duce one fruit of about 1.8kg, re­sult­ing in yields of about 70 tonnes/ha. Har­vest runs from Novem­ber to Au­gust at Humpty Doo, July to March at Ma­reeba and Feb­ru­ary to Novem­ber at Wa­mu­ran.

When it comes to straw­ber­ries, Pi­nata grows a range of va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing fes­ti­val, for­tuna, al­bion, red rhap­sody, scar­lett rose and sun­drench, and trial oth­ers each year. Har­vest at Wa­mu­ran runs from May to Oc­to­ber and at Stan­thorpe from Sep­tem­ber to June.

Straw­ber­ries are grown both in the open on raised beds and in co­conut coir on up­right trel­lises un­der poly tun­nels, which pro­tect the crop from ex­treme weather events and pro­vide more uni­form fruit in terms of flavour, shape and colour.

In Au­gust last year, the first com­mer­cial straw­ber­ries pro­duced un­der an ex­clu­sive ar­range­ment with UK-based Ber­ryWorld, which has ac­cess to best-tast­ing va­ri­eties from Europe, were mar­keted.

Pi­nata launched its first crop of Ber­ryWorld rasp­ber­ries in Jan­uary this year.

PACK­ING TIME

As a fresh fruit op­er­a­tion, Pi­nata uses a mix of tra­di­tional and new tech­niques.

While crops are “all hand planted, all hand har­vested and all hand packed” on the farm it uses GPS tech­nol­ogy in trac­tors, which run on tram tracks, and has fully com­puter-au­to­mated ir­ri­gation sys­tems in place, through which straw­ber­ries and man­goes are also fer­ti­gated.

Mango trees are wa­tered al­most ev­ery day, while the straw­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries grown in sub­strate are ir­ri­gated as fre­quently as ev­ery 20 min­utes “in two-minute shots”.

In the pack­ing shed there are au­to­mated graders that sort man­goes and pineap­ples on weight, with the more del­i­cate straw­ber­ries graded and packed by hand.

They are then check weighed, pass through metal de­tec­tors and go into an au­to­mated packer that stacks them into boxes.

Most straw­ber­ries go to Wool­worths, with pineap­ples split be­tween Wool­worths and Coles and both go­ing to Aldi.

Any man­goes that don’t meet su­per­mar­ket spec­i­fi­ca­tion — “whether they are too big, too small, too marked” — are sold through Har­ris Farm Mar­kets in NSW.

Se­condary pineap­ples and straw­ber­ries are sold to juic­ing fac­to­ries or do­nated to lo­cal farm­ers as stock feed.

Look­ing ahead, Gavin said chal­lenges for the busi­ness in­cluded ris­ing fuel and en­ergy costs. But the big­gest is­sue re­mained labour.

“The cost of it is sig­nif­i­cant but the chal­lenge of get­ting good labour is (also an is­sue),” Gavin said.

“Most of our har­vest­ing and pack­ing crew are back­pack­ers. They are tran­sient by na­ture, they don’t hang around ... so you are con­tin­u­ously train­ing new peo­ple.”

❝ So we are go­ing to see a lot more prod­uct come on line in the next five years. — Gavin Scurr

FAM­ILY FOOD: Gavin (left) and Stephen Scurr, of Pi­nata Farms, in their pineap­ple crop at Wa­mu­ran on the Sun­shine Coast.

PHO­TOS: CON­TRIB­UTED

Pi­nata Farms pineap­ples at Wa­mu­ran on the Sun­shine Coast.

Pineap­ples un­der pro­duc­tion at Pi­nata Farms, which uses sea­sonal staff dur­ing peak times.

Pi­nata Farms straw­berry fields in the heart of the Sun­shine Coast.

Pi­nata Farms straw­berry fields at Wa­mu­ran, which are har­vested May to Oc­to­ber.

Straw­ber­ries at Pi­nata Farms are graded and packed by hand.

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