It’s known far and wide as the avocado. But what, exactly, is it? A nut? No, although that big pit in the middle might make you think otherwise. A vegie? Wrong again. A lot of people still argue it is, in the US it is classified as one in most areas. But truth be told, it’s a fruit, because it’s the product of a plant’s mature flower and it has a seed. And folks, that’s the definition of a fruit, says ANDREW MOLE.
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Tim and Katrina Myers have been high-profile avocado growers on the Murray River through thick and thin.
That’s through droughts, floods, pandemics, global financial crises, good crops and, well, and the not-so-good.
But now things are back on the boil.
They’ve had a good pollination, they’re into harvest, some of the worst years (through which we all went) are behind them and their established enterprise is flourishing again.
And not just in growing avocados, but in how they are marketed, how other parts of the property are farmed, about the new farm-stay — and there’s more.
The story starts a few weeks ago, with the Myers getting stuck into harvest, and while it’s not exactly bringing home the bacon, Barham avocado growers always start with their Bacon trees ahead of the serious business to follow.
The Bacons are in the mix primarily as pollinators, which means, Tim said, they would probably only pick six or seven bins.
As opposed to the Hass, which will total bins in their thousands once the dust has settled.
But Tim said right now the avocado industry was marking time while it waited for the supply-demand equation to sort itself out — with supply way too far out in front.
While he waits for that, he is also glad he is looking at only a small number of Bacon bins, because unlike other varieties, each Bacon (like all greens) needs to be snipped from the branch, with 2-3mm of stalk left intact on the fruit to prevent stem-end rot.
Whereas the Hass, which lose their green when ripe, can just be grabbed as you go past and slipped into the bin because they are “a much tougher variety”.
They are just two of the varieties grown at Barham Avocados — there are also Fuerte, Gem and Reed in the line-up across the almost 9000 trees on the property.
That’s along with some opportunity cropping on the back of our recent wet years including rice and pumpkins — and some Merino sheep — making the most of some spare land and existing, albeit older, irrigation infrastructure.
There had to be, Tim said, some sort of silver lining in all the wet weather and floods.
“We will have a lot more fruit in the not-too-distant future as we have planted a lot of new trees, which take four years to reach production maturity, so we are hoping demand has caught up with supply by then,” Tim said.
“We had a very strong market a couple of years ago, with good prices, and like many others, family farms and corporates, we doubled our orchard size on land we had.
“The market is growing, just not as fast as supply.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the Australian avocado market doubled in size and you probably can’t maintain expansion that rapid.
“But there are other promising signs, such as new and bigger export opportunities for us all, especially with access to countries such as India, with its vast population and growing taste for our products.
“We also have emerging markets in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, all of which will help with the pressure on the domestic market as well, and the bigger the export scene gets, the better.”
Tim said the export market did face tough competition from Peru, Chile and Colombia, all having much lower costs of production with cheaper labour, less red tape and handy access to North America.
On the upside, Australian producers are much closer to the Asian markets, so have a good advantage with freight costs.
Avocado growers are also adapting to changing standards within the industry, new and better rootstock, better technical skills and extension work being conducted, all of which is seeing a major improvement in tree longevity and production.
“Only a couple of years ago there was so much demand to get bigger, or even get on board, you were looking at a three-year waiting list just for seed, but that has all returned to normal now, so our next big challenge will be turning over our lower performing trees with some of the latest options,” Tim said.
“Even something as simple as poor set-up can reduce the productive life of a tree to 20 years, or less, but with all the extra information now available, the agronomy and research, if you do it right that 20 years has just become 40-50 years,” he said.
“That makes a big difference to the bottom line in cost and time saved, and with research and development ongoing, there is always more good news and advice coming.”
Barham Avocados is a work in progress, having grown from its farmers’ markets origins to be a significant supplier to the supermarket trade to maximise its scale of economies and, as a value-add, has ventured into online sales, which Tim said they were looking at expanding as well.
But right now, there are a lot of hard yards ahead.
Harvest across the property as varieties come online will run until January — plus there’s the added load of being a packer for two other growers.
The Hass alone will be harvested for anywhere between two and five months.
And harvesting requires two passes in most orchards, the first one getting everything which can be gathered by hand and the second time around the cherry-pickers being brought in to tackle the tree tops.
Then there are those quiet months in between for maintenance, any pruning that’s required, checking out the filtration systems and all the other little bits and pieces which are the nuts and bolts of the business.
Also, once again, it gives Tim the time to ponder some of the mysteries of the universe, such as why supermarkets don’t like the overly big fruit whereas some smaller independents and boutique fruit shops jump at the chance to have them.
Or why everyone is so hot for Hass while he can’t think of anything better than a big, beautiful, creamy, flavoursome Reed to rock his boat.
And while Tim samples those dream avos, Katrina also has her hands full, because she agrees that after getting over those COVID-19 and flooding blues, the family’s business is not only ramping up production, with its new plantings and using its spare land, it is also launching a series of support programs – and innovations – to supercharge the ‘comeback’.
She said the first big news is Barham Avocados would be re-opening its direct-to-door sales later this year.
“It’s been an up and down time at the farm (as it has for everyone) during the past few years, first with COVID hitting our business hard, so then we went on our big trip and I guess just with life, we dropped the ball on our direct sales,” Katrina said.
“But, it’s always been part of the business we have enjoyed so we will be ready shortly to send our avos direct to you.
“And we guarantee they are perfect every time, instead of you taking pot luck buying from some of the bigger retailers only to find they’re brown inside.”
Katrina said the relaunch would be based on a couple of trials they were running with the primary candidate being drop points.
So what’s a drop point, you might ask.
Basically, Katrina said the customer orders their avocados and then she “toodles them down to the city, pulls up at a designated site and you come and collect”.
She said it meant the customers get them straight from the farmer and they get to save on packaging and don’t have to rely on couriers.
“So we think it’s worth giving a go.
“We just need a few spots to head to in the city, so if anyone has any suggestions we would love to hear them.
“Or maybe you would be willing to be a host drop point yourself.
“If so, please get in touch via hello@ barhamavocados.com.au and let us know if you have any suggestions.”
Then there’s the new farm-stay Lost and Found, designed and built by Katrina’s mother in partnership with Lifehouse Design Architects.
“It is such a treat to be able to offer this gorgeous designer house through Airbnb, set floating amongst the avocado trees for people to come and stay in,” Katrina said.
“If you have ever wanted to sleep in an avocado orchard, then you are in luck.
“With gorgeous views out over the back paddocks, away from it all, this is a great place to relax and unwind.”
To wrap up the announcements, they are also planning a long lunch feast among the avocado trees on Saturday, October 28.
“There’ll be a tour of the orchard, a three-course avocado degustation whipped up by Michelle Theodore Catering, along with some of our favourite wines, all set on long tables,” Katrina said.