Ella, 7, and James, 4, enjoy picking strawberries at the Naturipe Farm in Bacchus Marsh. Picture: Rebecca Michael
Ella, 7, and James, 4, enjoy picking strawberries at the Naturipe Farm in Bacchus Marsh. Picture: Rebecca Michael

Farming runs in the family

FOR Gavin Scurr and his family, growing fresh fruit for Australians runs in the blood.

Along with this brother Stephen, Gavin is the third generation of fruit farmers in their family since their grandfather Jack began growing pineapples in Queensland the 1960s.

Gavin and Stephen's father Geoff later founded Pinata Farms, which has steadily grown into the country's leading producer of not only pineapples, but also strawberries and mangoes, with raspberries recently added to their produce.

Although he has been involved in farming all his life, the past decade has seen the industry embrace rapidly evolving technologies in a bid to reduce wastage, ramp up production and create more viable and safer farming systems for the future.

With Stephen's three sons, and one of Gavin's daughters also joining the farming tradition, protecting the sustainability of the family's business is even more vital.

Sienna Adamson, 5, and sister Caitlin Adamson, 9, try a few strawberries at Wellington Point Recreation Reserve. Picture: Liam Kidston
Sienna Adamson, 5, and sister Caitlin Adamson, 9, try a few strawberries at Wellington Point Recreation Reserve. Picture: Liam Kidston

Pinata produces about nine million punnets of strawberries for sale each year - that's about 135 million strawberries and doesn't include those that are too small or damaged to be sold. That's on top of the 12 million mangoes, and 11 to 12 million pineapples, grown at seven locations.

One of the biggest changes to Pinata's strawberry production has been the introduction of polytunnels - 8.5m wide by 4.5m tall domed structures designed to protect the fruit from the weather and reduce waste.

Gavin says they made the decision to introduce the system to their Applethorpe (near Stanthorpe) strawberry farm four years ago, despite the heavy investment of about $110,000 per hectare required.

Applethorpe strawberries are now grown undercover, with a small number of plants at the company's Wamuran strawberry farm also under polytunnels.

"We do think it's worth it and we will see the return on the investment. We tend to get a lot of summer rain and some hail (at Applethorpe)," Gavin said.

Pinata Farms owner Gavin Scurr in his strawberry field at Wamuran. Picture: Lachie Millard
Pinata Farms owner Gavin Scurr in his strawberry field at Wamuran. Picture: Lachie Millard

But technological advancements are not just being utilised to reduce wastage and protect the fruit - it's also impacting day-to-day life on the farm.

Their strawberry business is the most labour intensive part of the company, and finding enough workers to pick the fruit all-year round is a constant challenge.

"Mechanical harvesting of fresh fruit is mainly on a prototype basis. Essentially they are mechanical arms," he said.

"At the moment they are relatively slow and expensive, but like all technology, they will become cheaper and better.

"The other big thing is using drones to take footage of crops to look at everything from plant flowering to pest control.

"They have the capability to take millions of pictures and the computers can then do the calculations. It allows visual monitoring at a scale much higher and more accurately than we would ever be capable of doing manually."

Strawberries are also a family affair for Taste 'N See growing manager Laura Wells.

Laura is the daughter of co-founders Merv and Marilyn Schiffke who started the business with the owners of the adjacent farming property, Bryan and Jane Stothart, in the Moreton Bay region 27 years ago.

Between the two families, they produce more than 1650 tonnes of strawberries annually, grown over 40ha, with about 400 workers at peak season.

Their 350g punnets are sold through Coles on Australia's east coast. This year was different, with about half of their harvest grown via a new, hydroponic system on outdoor tables.

"Even with the farm practices we had used, after 27 years the ground was becoming quite tired, and we knew we had to start succession planning to secure our future," Laura said.

"The real added bonus has been the reduction in the labour intensity, with the plants being at waist height, the fruit can be picked standing rather than the workers needing to be constantly bending over.

"It's a very different way of growing."

Along with her sisters Sam and Tracey, and David Fairweather, the Stotharts' son-in-law, Laura says continuing the family legacy has been a "no-brainer".

"We've always been very blessed to have a great working relationship between the two families," she said. "We all have the same drive - to produce quality fruit."