Growers of gigantic avocado swept up in media frenzy

The Avozilla, weighing up to 1.8 kilograms – four times the size of regular avocados – has proven to be more popular than the Groves family could have ever dreamed. The tropical fruit growers have been bombarded with curiosity from journalists and fruit enthusiasts ever since they sent their first box of Avozillas to market in June.

Originally from South Africa, Avozillas aren’t a new phenomenon, but they are new to Australia.

Interestingly enough, the gigantic fruit is not genetically-modified but is a cross between two sub-species of avocado. They taste just like regular avocados, but with a softer consistency that makes them more ‘buttery’ and easier to spread.

Fortunately for shoppers, the fruit of 400 trees, which were planted four years ago under trial arrangements with the Australian Nurserymen’s Fruit Improvement Company (ANFIC), were distributed to wholesale markets in four capital cities around the country.

The growers behind it all – Ian, Sandi and their son David, have described the resulting media frenzy as ‘bizarre’.

“The other day a Japanese couple who had flown to Australia for their holiday, drove up to our farm just to look at our Avozilla,” said Sandi.

“We gave them one and their eyes lit up – they were very lucky as it was the very last fruit on the farm.”

Ian said that it’s nice to have a good news story concerning fruit and vegetables.

“We consider good media for any fruit is good media for all fruit so hopefully all the talk about Avozilla will influence people to go out and buy more fruit,” he said.

Despite the initial excitement over the Avozilla fruit, the Groves family only expect it to be a small niche market and at this early stage are still learning how to get good production off the trees.

Avozillas may have thrust them into the worldwide spotlight, but Ian and Sandi have been in the business of growing fruit for more than four decades with their main focus now being on mangoes, lychees, avocado and carambola. They also grow a variety of other smaller lines of exotic fruits including loquats, dragon fruit, and wax jambu.

On the outskirts of Yeppoon in Bungundarra, the Groves grow more than 20,000 trees. They used to reside in Yeppoon but Ian and Sandi built a home on ‘Middle Ridge’ so the children could see more of their father while growing up. This also eliminated the hassle of travelling daily.

“It means now we can work all day and all night,” Ian jokes.

The Groves believe in sustainable farming and self-supply water from three catchment dams and several bores around their property, relying completely on drip irrigation to minimise water-use. Their environmental practices and policies include run-off catchment ponds, wildlife corridors, planted windbreaks, integrated pest management, 100 per cent ground cover and mulching to suppress weeds, conserve moisture and improve soil quality.

In the last twelve years, the business has undergone significant changes since David came to work full-time, including a shift in Sandi and Ian’s responsibilities.

“Ian used to run the paddock crew while I ran the shed, but now he’s in the shed with me most of the time. This is just as well with the massive increase in paperwork with all the additional compliance now required,” Sandi said.

“Sandi runs the technical side of the shed and I run the mechanical side,” Ian added.

“I’ve got it easy. She’s got to use her brain.”

Meanwhile, David manages the harvest crew and is the project manager in the off-season. He’s become very proficient in building sheds, operating machinery and developing new blocks of land for tree planting.

Much of the work in the off-season is done by the family with one or two casuals assisting when needed, but during the peak summer harvest, a larger number of locals and backpackers are employed to get the crop picked and packed.

While Yeppoon is not a mecca for backpackers, Groves Grown Tropical Fruit’s social media pages and word of mouth is usually enough to attract enough workers. University holiday time conveniently aligns with their major harvest season.

In 2015 the Groves farm took a direct hit from Cyclone Marcia with 500 trees totally removed, 1000 Honey Gold mango trees blown flat and many other trees and wind breaks severely damaged. All permanent netting and some shed infrastructure were also lost. Rather than seeing this as a total disaster, the Groves saw an opportunity to remodel parts of the farm and replace older varieties of trees with better varieties.

In the three years following, the trees that remained have recovered well to produce three good seasons.

The farm has been developed with a range of crops and a number of different varieties in each crop to spread its risk profile and extend its harvest season. Production runs up to 10 months of the year which ensures the family some protection from individual weather events.

They grow over ten varieties of lychee including the Erdon Lee which grows to the size of a small plum and is developing a niche market. A portion of their lychees and mangoes are exported each year but the bulk of their fruit is sold to the domestic market.

All Groves family members contribute to the farm’s social media presence. Sandi posts on Facebook, Ian takes photos for Instagram and David runs has his own Instagram as ‘the Dragonfruit Grower’. They want to show the general public what really happens on a family farm to enhance the clean, green image of Australian fruit and counteract some of the negative views of how farmers treat the environment and their workers.

They also welcome school and university students onto their farm to show them a practical side to their studies.

Central Queensland University is currently using their farm as a basis for a significant research project under the direction of Professor Kerry Walsh. Professor Walsh developed the near infra-red gun which is now the main basis for a non-invasive procedure to test the maturity of fruit. The university is involved in monitoring flower and fruit development which enables farmers to more accurately predict crop size, and harvest times of individual trees. With further development, the technology will be able to indicate to harvest crews which trees should be picked and which need to be left until later.

“As the fruit develops, we can get an idea of how many mangoes are in a paddock, what size they are and when we need to start picking. This helps us in planning our staff, carton and insert numbers. It also helps greatly with marketing as we can inform our wholesalers as to when we’re likely to start picking and how much they can expect,” Ian said.

Looking to the future, Sandi hopes the university can work the technology into a cheap enough product so that most growers will be able to access this useful innovation.

“Generally speaking, mango growers are 30 to 40 per cent over or under their forecasts so we need more accurate ways of estimating our crops to help farm management and the industry as a whole,” Sandi said.

“It would be a win-win for everybody.”

Groves Grown Tropical Fruit is featured in the November 2018 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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Written by Sam Allen-Ankins