Cottoning on to grape vines
Grapes help turn the tables for unique operation in Queensland’s Central Highlands
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.”
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.
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.”
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,...