for fourth generation citrus farmers
In the 1920s, Walter Benham, who’d spent years propagating nursery fruit in South Australia, moved to Queensland to establish a new citrus orchard in the lush soils of the North Burnett.
It was a shrewd decision that saw Benham become a local authority on citrus with the media of the time naming him the ‘Grand Old Man’ of the industry.
Almost a century later, his legacy lives on under the family brand, Benyenda, which spreads across four Gayndah properties on more than 170 hectares of land. The collective farms total 90,000 trees growing: lemons; imperial, daisy and murcott mandarins; red and white grape fruit; and navel oranges.
For the last six years Walter’s great-grandson, 31-year-old Matthew Benham has been managing three of the farms’ field operations – a role he might say was his destiny.
Matthew and his wife Rachael work in partnership with his parents, Murray and Averial. Murray and his late brother, Ross, inherited the Benyenda property from their parents before them. In the years following, the brothers and their wives, Averial and Chris, expanded the business with their own orchards, the fruit from which is all packed under the Benyenda brand.
While his parents focus on the packing shed and marketing administration at Benyenda, Matthew travels back and forth between nearby properties, Top Citrus and Riverton, which are less than seven kilometres apart.
“It’s a lifestyle 100 per cent. There’s certain days you go to work and you think it’s a job because there can be a few ordinary things to do, but 90 per cent of the time you’re there because you love it,” Matthew said.
In recent years Matthew has pushed open doors to new export markets. The Benhams’ now export half their fruit to markets in Thailand, China and Indonesia.
“The only varieties we don’t export are the grapefruit, imperials and navels,” he said.
“One year we exported 70 per cent of our lemons. It really depends on the demand each year.”
Matthew said his busiest time of year is around April to May when imperial mandarins are in full swing, followed closely by lemons, grapefruit and navels.
Due to the volatile nature of Queensland’s weather it is especially hard to accurately predict their annual crop outputs.
“If we have a really windy year, when the fruit is prone to wind rub, what might have been an 80 per cent first grade pack-out crop can drop down to as low as 60 per cent pretty quickly. Up to 40 per cent of your crop then ends up being sent to a juice factory, even though a majority of that fruit is perfectly fine inside,” Matthew said.
“Thankfully, over the last two years there’s been greater demand for second and third grade fruit. Our aim will always be premium Benyenda-branded fruit; however these markets allow us to sell more of our fruit to the fresh market instead of being designated for juice.
“It’s educating the consumers: just because it has a few marks on the outside doesn’t mean the inside’s no good.”
Beyond marketing their fresh produce, the Benhams have a small sideline making marmalade and citrus jelly spreads under their Citrus Gold label.
When Rachael married Matthew, she used her preserve making skills to craft recipes for murcott marmalade, citrus jelly, lime cordial, and lemon butter. They gifted these goodies at their wedding garnering rave reviews from guests and new inspiration for a line of value-add products.
They went on to contract Port Macquarie manufacturer, Eric from The Other Chef Fine Foods to make jars of marmalade and jelly using their second-grade fruit and an adapted version of Rachael’s own recipe. The entire process from farm to jar takes approximately three weeks.
For the marmalade and jelly, they use low-seeded murcott mandarins full of juice, sugar (brix) and unrivalled flavour, mixed with lemons.
“It’s 47 per cent fruit which is pretty high – I think the next best is Maggie Beer’s at 40 per cent,” Matthew said.
“When we sent our first batch of fruit down to the manufacturer, it made double what he expected because of the quality and juiciness of our fruit. We sent him six boxes when he probably only needed four.”
Matthew said Eric was so impressed with the murcott flavour, and the finished product, that he deemed it ‘Liquid Gold’.
The products proved to be a point of difference at local markets in the Wide Bay Burnett and have grown to include a series of lemon and orange oils that include Australian extracts.
“Our end game goal is to find a way to use our own citrus oils and team that with a local olive oil. But at the moment we’re testing the market to see if it works,” Matthew said.
In the meantime, day-to-day operations on the farm matched by the task of raising their two daughters, Ayla (3) and Zoey (12 weeks), keep Matthew and Rachael’s hands full.
“Up until we had our first daughter three years ago, Rachael was spraying the orchards, running thinners, and supervising,” Matthew said.
“Now she’s doing admin, payroll and the auditing that goes along with the orchard, all the while looking after three children – she’s gotta count me in there as well!”
Like most farm operators, the Benhams take their role as custodians of good workplace relations very seriously.
In addition to 11 full time staff members over three farms, they employ up to 80 workers through Labour Hire Contractors during their peak season.
Matthew said he monitors the situation closely to ensure dodgy dealings are not taking place.
“When we set picking prices, we talk to our contractor, their supervisors and the pickers in the paddock to decide on a price together. That way the workers know what they’re getting paid and if they don’t see it in their pay cheque, then they know something’s wrong,” he said.
While he understands the importance of cracking down on labour-hire fraud, Matthew is reluctant about unions trying to implement excess rules that aren’t practical in his line of work.
“They’re trying to bring things in like double-time before 6am which is something we can’t afford,” he said.
“If that gets enforced, we’re either going to have to reduce the scale of our operation or employ more people so we can still do it in that time period.
“But the crackdown on labour hire is needed. If you’re doing the right thing to start with there’s nothing to worry about. All it means is an extra bit of paper work here and there.”
With the Fair Farms Program in its pilot phase, it won’t be long until farm employers will be able to demonstrate to customers their compliance with Australian workplace relations laws and industry standards.
Matthew said he’s glad the industry is providing a mechanism to weed out dodgy operators and reward compliant growers.
“I see it as a good thing because other than the extra work to implement it, hopefully then you’re farm looks attractive to workers,” he said.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get staff to do this job because it is bloody hard.
“But if we get the big tick of approval we’ll be more appealing to more people because they know they’re not going to get ripped off.”
Benyenda Citrus is featured in the April 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
Subscribe to our monthly magazine here.
Written by Sam Allen-Ankins