In the beginnng...
In 1977 Heather and I purchased a 37 ½ acre bush bock (we wanted 5 acres, but the larger block was cheaper so we bought it!) – the block was so overgrown, Heather and I took nearly 1 hour to get to where our house is now built.
We built and moved into our new house in 1978, and decided to clear the land so we could run a few cows. Unfortunately, when we looked at this idea we needed over 1km of fencing. So Plan “B” was to plant peaches and cherries (with no fences). At this time we had a fish & chip shop, so we figured growing potatoes would break up the soil and make it better for growing trees. This proved correct and we planted 3 – 4 acres, and to this day we still have potatoes growing from this initial planting.
Could peaches save the day?
After 7 years we found cherries not to be a good option for this area – birds and rain virtually took all of the crop year after year (bird netting wasn’t an option at this time), so we pulled all the cherries out and planted more peaches.
Time moved on and prices seemed to drop more each year. By the time we had been farming for 20 years, we were starting to wonder if there was any future for a small peach farm. During this time, we had only made decent wages one year – all the rest we just survived. In fact, up until our 23rd year, we couldn’t even afford to do repairs on our house. When we started growing fruit we were getting around $25 – $28 per 9kg tray. The year we stopped sending fruit to the wholesale market we were averaging $8 for 5kgs.
After 25 years it was make or break time.
By the 25th year we were starting to realise that unless we did something completely different, we were going to lose our beautiful farm. Memories of the era all contain nightmares of driving backwards and whatever I did, I couldn’t stop. It is extremely demoralising when whatever you do to make ends meet, it seems to paralyse your thought processes, and the worse the problem gets, the worse the paralysis. Despair had well and truly set in. There seemed to be no hope of us keeping the farm.
Then Farmers’ Markets reared their head – the first was at Pakenham, and suddenly there seemed to be some future. The next was at Boroondara….and eventually we were attending around 25 markets per month. The relief was unbelievable, we were against all odds making money – the farm was again a great place to be.
From farmers' markets to farm tours
Our customers at farmers markets started to ask if they could come and visit the farm, so we said “yes”. This proved to be very difficult as when you are busy and under pressure, having visitors wandering around and getting in the way was at best a nuisance. As we were and still are a working farm, this was not sustainable, so we approached Yarra Ranges Regional Marketing. They arranged a questionnaire from Tourism Vic to give us an indication if our business was suitable to be a tourism operation. We filled this out and it gave us the answer – our business and position were nearly perfect for tourism. We then started to research what other farms were doing on the tourism front, what bus companies expected, and what we could do to be different and make the farm more interesting. All made the comment – do it properly or don’t do it at all.
Bringing back fruit with flavour
The aim was to get away from “supermarket fruit” that looks good but has no flavour, and focus on growing varieties of fruit for their taste, not their size and unblemished appearance. We wanted people to come to the farm and experience traditional fruit flavours straight from the tree, to taste a fresh sweetness that would bring many people back to childhood memories of fruit from yesteryear, when fruit was grown more for flavour than a uniform shape.
Launching farm tours and a the café
We approached the Shire of Yarra Ranges with our proposal for a café, shop and farm tours – we were told that there was no way we could have a café and shop on a green wedge farm…they gave us the permit to build the café and shop – we just weren’t allowed to use them! A trip to VCAT mostly fixed this and we had the green light. A lot of sessions with a very reluctant bank gave us the money to start up our tourism operation.
3 generations working together
We now have 3 generations working here…our sons Cameron and Andrew both work on the farm, Jaimie (our eldest grand daughter) is a wiz working in the café on weekends and school holidays, Shannon (youngest grand daughter) is junior sales executive and Austin (youngest grandson) is customer relations!
Over the last 5 years, we have improved business turnover by 6 times, and our farm is now in the top third of farms in Australia in terms of income (still haven’t got any money, but the future is looking much better). At the height of Summer, we are now employing nearly 20 staff.
The future now looks pretty good – with a small amount of success enthusiasm has really kicked in, the ideas just keep coming…our latest is to offer visitors the opportunity to preserve their own fruit.
There seems to be a very strong move for city people to come out to regional country areas to see where their food comes from, to learn about aspects of sustainability and to experience farm life.
The State Government, through Tourism Vic sent us to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in June 2013 and 2014 to meet 120 travel agents in these countries. This has had a big impact on our business, as currently around half of our customers are coming from Malaysia and Singapore. The expectation is that this will increase substantially over the next few years, as these contracts start including our farm in their Australian tours.
Our wish list
We would love to have 5 – 6 self-contained cottages on the farm – we are constantly being asked if we have “farm stay “.
Also, a small train running through the orchard would really improve visitor numbers – and also be a lot of fun!!!