Survival of the Savvy
The Attards’ decision to diversify
Bundaberg fruit and sugarcane growers Annie, 43, and Jason Attard, 49, are living proof that farmers are nothing if not business savvy.
With more than 283 hectares of cane, 20 hectares of rockmelon and 16 hectares of cherry tomatoes under plantation, the third-generation farmers are welcoming a new crop to the mix.
They’re diversifying with macadamias, having planted four lots of trees in the last year totalling 40 hectares.
Annie said embracing the nut industry was inevitable – a matter of literally “branching out” or folding the business entirely.
Foreseeing increasing costs, they decided to pivot to macadamias because it’s a crop that requires less hands-on labour.
“With import costs rising, it’s really, really hard to make any money out of small crops,” Annie said. “It’s a lot of hard work for little return.”
“The government is making it more difficult, they’re putting wages up all the time, and we’re getting the same amount of money for our produce than 20 years ago.
“You’ve gotta diversify into something so you can keep going.”
To sure-up their irrigation practices, they applied for the Australian Government’s Reef Trust grant with the help of Growcom’s Hort360 BMP Facilitator, Michelle Haase.
They used the $5000 they received to install water sensors and monitors that accurately survey their water usage.
Annie said the “irrigation probes” keep an eye on the moisture level in the ground, removing the problem of watering too much or too little.
“Jason has an app on his phone that tells him how much moisture is in the ground, and when it drops below a certain level, he knows he needs to water the trees,” she said.
“It cuts down the cost of over-watering, and since we rely solely on surface water, we need all the help we can get.”
Annie and Jason, like any farmers since the dawn of agricultural production, are at the mercy of weather that’s often either too dry or too wet.
“We’ve been affected by drought, I don’t know a farmer who hasn’t,” she said. “But we’ve also seen how too much rain will destroy a crop.
“Weather plays a big part, especially when you spend so much time and expense on getting a crop ready for picking. It takes just one bad weather event to send that money down the tube.”
Just a few years ago, the Attards received enormous rainfall that damaged a large percentage of their tomatoes and rockmelons in one fell swoop.
When natural disasters hit, Annie said hesitating helps no one.
“Once the fruit splits, you’ve got to pull it out of the blocks,” she said.
“Otherwise you’re going to waste money and time picking it and sending it away only to get rejected. Then you’ve spent money on cartons and transport wages – none of it’s worth it.”
Last year’s rockmelon listeria outbreak made things even harder, cutting their rockmelon production down from 100 acres to 30.
Annie said on-the-ground government support has been largely missing in action as industry still rebuilds from the fallout.
“You pay all your levies in the hope that it supports industry but it all goes into R&D. Sometimes it feels like you get nothing back,” she said.
On top of big issues such as labour, drought and the price of power and water, Annie said recent reef regulations feel like another nail in the coffin.
“It would be nice if the government backed farmers more but it’s like they just don’t want us to survive,’ she said.
Instead she relies on fellow members of the industry for professional and personal support.
Currently in her second term and fourth year on the Bundaberg Canegrowers Board, Annie was the first ever woman to join.
“I’ve learnt a lot because I’ve previously dealt with the small crop side of things, and cane has traditionally been my husband and his father’s forte,” she said.
“Women do see things differently to men so hopefully we’ve brought balance to the conversation.
“For me it’s been an incredible experience and I hope it welcomes more of us to the table.”
At the end of the day, man or woman, a life in agriculture is a life hard-won. No one gets a free pass. Not one season is easy.
“We’re trying to keep going as every farming family are,” Annie said.
Whether its tomatoes, rockmelons, macadamias or sugar cane, each crop needs constant monitoring, evaluating, and re-evaluating.
The pickers and packers are many, especially in the last six months of the year when crop yields overlap.
Annie said they harvest tomatoes from April to November, cane from June to October, and rockmelons in November and December. As for the macadamias, it will be a few years yet before they see the crop produce.
Currently the Attards’ products go to central markets in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and Adelaide, as well as a few local grocers and farmers markets like the annual Winterfest.
Annie said she deeply values the face-to-face interactions she has with consumers, which are few and far between.
“Half the time when you see your fruit in the supermarket, it’s probably gone to six different places and taken three weeks to get there,” she said. “So we especially love farmers’ markets because we can meet our customers and get instant feedback on our product.”
All the while running a family business, Annie and Jason have had the pleasure of raising five children of their own whose ages range between 14 to 28.
Their 25-year-old son Hayden, who is a qualified diesel mechanic, drives the haul-out during the cane crush, while their youngest son Sam, 14, does odd-jobs on the farm when he’s on school-break.
But it’s Jason’s father, Frances, who remains the “big wig”, according to Annie.
“He’s 78 and won’t take a break – drives us all nutty,” she joked.
And yet for all the associated pressure that comes with running a family farm, the Attards seem remarkably cohesive and connected.
It’s a testament to their commitment to the marathon that is farming while maintaining a positive and unbroken spirit.
It’s true what they say, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.
Written by Sam Allen-Ankins
Photography by Paul Beutel of Paul Beutel Photography.
Attard Family Farm is featured in the September 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.