Game face on
Caleos look to the future

It has been nearly three years since the Caleo family faced what you could describe as every melon grower’s worst nightmare.

In late March 2015, Jon Caleo found Cucumber Green Mottle Mosaic Virus in his seedless watermelon crop at Sellheim, near Charters Towers.

The authorities confirmed his suspicions, and the property has been under quarantine ever since.
The Caleos had to dump about 150 tonnes of melons from their cold rooms, stop production for 12 months and let go of their work crew.

The blow cost them about $1 million initially, plus ongoing losses through decreased production.

The virus struck less than a year after their son Anthony, who was then 28 and had been primed to take over the family farming business, suffered third degree burns to half his body in a farming accident.

The accident, which happened when Anthony was burning stacks of wood from a cleared paddock, put him out of action for more than a year.

He spent three months in hospital in an induced coma and a further three months living in Brisbane for daily skin grafts, and he still makes trips back for surgery.

Now Anthony is well and truly back on deck as farm manager, and he has a game plan.

Behind the scenes, as the Caleos strive to return to business as usual with their melons and pumpkins, new hope grows slowly in the form of diversification.

In late 2017, Anthony planted two hectares of asparagus at the Sellheim farm, which is having a break from cucurbit production for the next 18 months. They transplanted it to Sellheim from the family nursery at Black River, where Jon grew it from seed.

Anthony is cautiously optimistic about the project, which he and his father undertook with a view to eventually filling a gap in Australia’s winter market.

“From what we understand, a lot of asparagus is imported from places like Chile during the winter months and that suits us because that’s when we want to be harvesting it,” he said.

“It’s a good season for the crop and for our own business. We don’t want to be doing asparagus while we’re full swing into watermelons and hopefully the price is at a slight premium.

“It’s very long-term, we possibly could harvest this coming winter but we probably won’t because if we leave it for two years we’ll end up with a stronger root stock and it’ll last longer that way. So we’ll probably harvest it in 2019.”

It is not Anthony’s first shot at diversifying. He also has 2 hectares of pineapples growing on the property, but unfortunately they did not do as well as he had hoped this season.

“I got really badly stung this harvest with those – it was actually our very first harvest and there were really low prices, which soured me, plus I’ve learned a lot just in the growing but also logistically,” he said.

“If we move beyond the trial phase with pineapples we’ll have to look at packing our own stuff – that’s the only real way we could do anything with it.”

He said diversification was important for the future of the farming business.

“Ever since I’ve been on the farm, we’ve always done watermelons and pumpkins. It’s been all our eggs in one basket and the virus forced us to look at alternatives like the asparagus and pineapple, which are completely different crops,” he said.

“From what I’m seeing there are more and more biosecurity issues raising their heads in this country at the moment – every time you turn around there’s another outbreak of some bloody thing or another – so having various crops is going to help us hedge our bets a bit more.”

As the asparagus grows slowly but surely at Sellheim, Anthony continues watermelon production at a paddock the Caleos started leasing 50km up the Burdekin River in October 2017.

Anthony grows 5000 tonnes of seedless watermelons, his parents Jon and Roslyn grow 1000 tonnes of butternut, kent and jarahdale pumpkins at the Black River home farm and his eldest sister Katheryn helps Jon in the family nursery – another diversification venture.

Roslyn and Jon started farming at Black River before Anthony was born and farmed papaws before they shifted to watermelons. They expanded to Sellheim after Anthony, a diesel fitter by trade, came to work for the family business a decade ago.

Now, with his trusty Australian Shepherd Dixie by his side and the convenience of his Robinson R44 helicopter (Anthony has been flying since 2011), he mostly splits his time between Sellheim and the leased paddock. He works with a few local permanent supervisor staff and employs up to 15 backpackers during the peak season.

Despite the challenges of the last few years, the Caleos continue to run a reasonably-sized horticulture business, supplying the two major supermarkets via the Townsville distribution center, and selling any extra product via the Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne markets.

The Caleos might have copped their fair share of heartache in recent years, but they are now in a position to look to the future.

They are humble in their ambitions. Anthony, who turned 32 on the day he spoke with the Fruit & Vegetable News, said his goal was for the business to fully recover from the biosecurity ordeal.

It’s a process which has consumed his life since he got back on his feet after his accident, and he can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“To be honest at the moment for both me and the business as a whole the goal is just to get over this virus,” he said.
“What’s been tough is the uncertainty, but now we’ve got a game plan and we know where we’re going.

“The last few years have been quite hectic, doing a whole lot of work and going nowhere just to keep our head above water, but hopefully it’ll get better from here on in. It won’t be from lack of effort anyway, if it doesn’t.”

The Caleo family featured in the February 2018 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
Subscribe to our monthly magazine here.

By Susie Cunningham