There is possibly no finer taste than to pick fruit fresh off the tree or vine, and eat it while it still has the warm rays of sunshine lifting the level of the sugars.
The opportunity to partake of that enjoyment for residents of or visitors to Wagga Wagga has been extended through an initiative of Kylie and Michael Cashen to establish a strawberry farm on the edge of Wagga Wagga.
“We wanted to have something for family, friends and visitors to do when they came to Wagga Wagga,” Mrs Cashen said.
“We want people to say that while they were in Wagga they visited other places in the Riverina, but they also visited the strawberry farm.”
Mrs Cashen said their site was chosen for its proximity to the Marrambidya Wetland, the Wiradjuri Walking Trail and the Wiradjuri Golf Centre giving visitors reason to stop and enjoy the Riverina city.
“We wanted to have something locals could showoff to their visitors, and the response has exceeded our expectations,” she said.
They love it … you hear them say ‘another juicy strawberry’ and when they leave they have strawberry all around their mouths … and big smiles on their faces
The couple initially planted 10,000 strawberry runners for their first full season of production, and are hoping to pick up to one kilogram per plant which is a higher yield than the expected 250gm per plant on which they based their budgets.
The strawberry varieties Albion and San Andreas were chosen for their proven performance in SA where friends of the Cashens have successfully grown strawberries for many years.
“It was also a matter of availability … they are the varieties which are easily sourced, and are the most common varieties grown which supply the major supermarkets,” Mrs Cashen said.
“We are hoping to produce up to one and half kilos per plant, and this year we will be planting a further 20,000 runners including some of another variety.”
The current production system involves growing the strawberry plants in 32 rows, of raised hydroponic beds 40 metres long and are high enough to make the picking easy.
The plants are grown in coconut fibre held in bags and nutrients and water are supplied through drip-tapes inserted in the grow-bags with run-off recycled.
Water is sourced from the Wagga Wagga city supply and during the current heatwave, the plants are being watered for thirty minutes three times each day, compared to seven minutes during the winter.
“It depends on how much heat the plants are exposed to,” Mrs Cashen said.
“We also run overhead sprinklers three times a day to keep the plants cool through the heat.”
Great response to exciting new venture
Wagga Wagga couple, Michael and Kylie Cashen haven’t given up their day jobs, but are excited for the success they have achieved in their first year.
“This is our expensive hobby, and until it is able to pay for itself, we will keep working,” Mrs Cashen said.
“The business has made more money than we thought it would in our first year … so we are encouraged and will be expanding with another 20,000 plants to satisfy demand.
“The amount of income has blown us away and the production has blown us away.”
Meanwhile, Mr Cashen continues to work as a research officer at the NSW DPI in Wagga Wagga, while Mrs Cashen is a high school teacher.
Mrs Cashen’s background is in food technology and she is looking forward to expanding her food technology skills again.
They plan to value-add their business making strawberry ice cream and growing lettuce and greens for sale to the restaurants they now service.
“It is a pleasure to see people picking their own strawberries off the plant because they know the taste they are after,” she said.
Strawberries are picked daily, and people are also encouraged to pick their own, which can be a lot of fun for the family, according to Mrs Cashen and the enjoyment on children’s faces when they discover the sweet taste of freshly picked strawberries is something to behold.
“They love it … you hear them say ‘another juicy strawberry’ and when they leave they have strawberry all around their mouths … and big smiles on their faces,” she said.
“For our first year, it has been an extremely worthwhile venture.”
Mrs Cashen admits to being overwhelmed by the response, with the community embracing the project.