Innovation, adaptation and risk management. You’ve probably heard these terms thrown around quite often – and for good reason. With climate variability, changing markets and emerging technology, getting on board with these concepts is increasingly critical for businesses of all kinds, particularly in the agricultural industry.

In the case of exotic tropical fruit growers Zappala Tropicals in Bellenden Ker North Queensland, it’s all about managing tropical cyclone risk. On average 4.7 cyclones hit the region each year, and the farm has had its fair share of extreme weather events.

“In 1986 there was Cyclone Winifred, in 2006 Cyclone Larry and in 2011 Cyclone Yasi. In each case, crop loss was near 100 per cent and tree loss was anywhere from 60 per cent to 90 per cent,” Josh Maunder said.

While most growers have left the industry – deeming it too risky – Zappala Tropicals is forging ahead with a suite of innovations and farm adaptations designed to manage the risk and develop efficiency. Both of which are key for a sustainable business in cyclone country.

In the past, the lack of affordable plants and propagation material meant that growers developed low density orchards with a focus on maximising yields. The result was tall unmanageable trees with a high susceptibility to cyclones.

Today – armed with the knowledge of past experiences, Zappala Tropicals is re-writing the book on orchard development.

The team are currently in the process of trialling a range of new management strategies – all with efficiency and resilience in mind. By growing smaller trees in higher density, netting infrastructure, nutrient application and harvesting are optimised. Less yield per tree, higher yield per hectare, and lower cost of operation throughout.

However, it’s in its resilience to extreme weather that this approach really shines. Trees are quicker to establish and harvest, and with a smaller surface area, they are far less susceptible to wind damage. Importantly, this new design reduces the cost and time needed to re-establish in the event of cyclone damage.

Zappala was started in the early 1980s by Joe and Ivy Zappala, their son Alan and his wife Denise. The dynamic foursome overcame the many challenges associated with starting a new industry, including beating back the proposed import of fresh durian, to grow the operation into a successful business. Nowadays, the business continues to operate with Alan assisted by his daughter and son in law – Lisa and Josh Maunder.

Josh has also been working closely with Growcom through the Hort360 best management practice program to further streamline their farm management strategies. In 2017, Zappala Tropicals became the first horticultural business to complete the program.

The business consistently scored high in all areas of management – a testament to their innovation and environmental stewardship through their 40+ years of operations. However, the program identified a few key areas where efficiencies could be gained; data collection, irrigation timing and paddock planning in future areas.

Zappala quickly took advantage of the findings and implemented a moisture monitoring suite and new irrigation equipment. With new paddocks planned, they are also undertaking detailed design – meaning new operations will start out optimised. Current and future efficiencies have, and will, mean lower production costs, increased resilience and therefore a better bottom-line. The plan: make the paddock suit the crop, not the crop suit the paddock.

Zappala Tropicals hope their research and trials will benefit the exotic tropical fruit industry – allowing it to grow and reach its sizeable potential. The team are looking for more opportunities to fund further research efforts and are also conducting a comprehensive industry survey.

“The past is painful, but we need to learn and focus on the future. Our focus is on developing resilience, decreasing operational costs and increasing production volumes. Our R&D shows us that we can achieve more with less if we plan properly from the start. Our goal is to supply the domestic market and realise export opportunities,” Josh said.

In the meantime, Zappala continues forging ahead with a number of trials and industry initiatives. So watch this space, it’s looking to be quite fruitful in North Queensland.

For more information or to get involved with the Hort360 Great Barrier Reef project, contact:

Michelle Haase

0428 586 890

Lindsay Allen

0477 588 677

The Hort360 Great Barrier Reef (GBR) project is managed by Growcom and funded by the Queensland Government Reef Water Quality program.