Tour inside Pinata Farms
Pushing the edge for new varieties
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.