When Debbie and Sandy Warne bought their land near the River Murray at Barham four decades ago, they had a few bare sandhills and irrigation paddocks. Fast forward to the present and the same sandhills are home to four varieties of avocado and now is high season for the Haas variety.
Two thousand, five hundred trees were planted in 1999 with the remaining 1,500 planted in 2013. All the trees are grafts on rootstock with the Bacon, Fuerte, Haas and Reed varieties selected for suitability for this riparian climate.
The orchard is managed by Debbie’s daughter, Katrina, and her husband Tim Myer who moved back to the property four years ago. Prior to this, they had been in Young where Tim was practicing as a veterinary surgeon. As well as the avocados, they also have 200 acres of feed barley and 200 Merino ewes plus lambs making this a most interesting mixed farm.
When testing to check if the avocado’s dry matter content is at the ideal 23 per cent (equivalent to oil content) most avocado farmers use a meter. However, at Barham Avocados, the Myers have an interesting biological method – their black Labrador, Moet.
“She has some sense to ascertain the perfect time of ripeness. Moet sniffs, selects an avocado, opens it then eats it”, Ms Myer explained. “In some orchards, the fruit is picked when the dry matter content is lower than 23 per cent and the avocados end up hard and watery, indicating they have been picked prematurely. Although avocados continue to ripen after picking, if picked before that magic 23 per cent is reached, nothing except being on the tree until the right time will improve the process”.
In 2014, the Myers opened an on-line shop and their customer base continues to increase. There is an option for a monthly subscription of a 10 kg or 12 kg pack and gift packs. Seconds fruit is made into oil but, this year, the quality of the fruit has been high and consistent so oil is off the menu for the time being.
“We love attending farmers markets to keep in contact with our customers and this is ideal to receive immediate feedback and ideas but this makes up only a fraction of our production. The majority is sold at wholesale with sixty per cent going to Avolution, a company specialising in supplying avocados into food service in Melbourne”.
“Avocados are really quite easy to grow as they don’t have any pests or diseases. We use seaweed and fish based preparations to feed the soil microbes as healthy soils are essential for the high quality of our crop. Winter can be a critical time with frosts potentially damaging the flowers and young fruits so we have large frost fans in the orchard to make sure the cold air doesn’t settle”.
The orchard is trickle irrigated with water from the River Murray. High, and overhead water jets are sometimes used when the temperatures reach 34 Celsius to keep humidity high and temperatures cooler.
Ms Myer predicted there will be a glut of avocados in five years time as more orchards are established. “We are always looking for ways to add value to the primary crop such as the oil. Skin care products containing avocado are wonderful and in demand, too. What we would really love is a high pressure processor as this form of preservation extends shelf-life exponentially without reducing any nutritional benefits. It’s able to process almost any form of food or liquid and is the safest way of all to achieve this”.
During harvesting, the Myers employ local people to pick, grade, pack and send the fruit to the various recipients. Transport to Melbourne is on a daily basis so fruit can be in a cafe within 12 hours.
Barham Avocados have been a finalist many times in the annual delicious awards and the family are committed to growing the value of their enterprise. “We have three generations on the farm and everyone is involved. Isn’t this an example of farming for the future?” Ms Myer asked.